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    Why Are We Fat?

    Fat doesn't just happen.  Almost invariably there is some reason, either psychological or physical, that causes a person to gain fat over the course of their lives.  In the modern age, the path towards obesity begins shortly after birth and doesn't stop until the individual finds himself (or herself) staring down the barrel of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

    Childhood Factors in Obesity

    One of the first preventatives of adult obsesity occurs shortly after birth when the mother decides to breastfeed her child.  A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology (September 2005) conclusively determined that breastfeeding for even one month reduces the occurrence of adult obesity by 4%.  Extended breastfeeding (up to a year and beyond) has an even greater reducing effect on obesity in adults.  The preference of many pediatricians for the mother to bottle feed is a step on the child's path to possibly being overweight.

    Parents also affect the potential for their children to become overweight by using food as a reward system.  A child soon learns that certain behaviors earn them tasty treats that demonstrate that an authority (mom or dad) has approved of them in some way.  These are the first attachments we earn to "comfort foods" that we seek out as adults as a reward.  Get a raise?  Have a big meal out.  Hole in one?  Everyone gets a drink.  Food is such a normal part of celebrations that omitting it for the sake of health seems almost a violation of social norms.  Try having your Christmas or New Year's Eve celebrations without food (or with just fruits, vegetables, and nuts) and you'll see the truth in the reward aspect of food.

    The eating situation for children does not improve once they enter the public school system.  In spite of the fact that school meals are advertised as healthy, usual fare for public school children as young as 4 includes such items as pizza, fried chicken, french fries, cheeseburgers, sugar cereals, apple turnovers, and ravioli.  Meals are generally packed with carbohydrates and contain little protein.  The health claims of school lunch programs are based on the fact that cereals, milk, breads, pasta, and meats are generally low in fat.  If there is any truth in such claims, then we should have a bunch of healthy kids running around our schools.  The truth of the matter is that type 2 diabetes is being diagnosed in children as young as 10 years old.  According to the CDC, 13,000 children are diagnosed with type-2 diabetes with insulin resistance each year.  The blame for such a statistic does not rest solely with the school lunch program, but when children eat 2 meals a day 5 days a week in a school cafeteria, it's worth noting the possible effects of school lunch programs on the overall health of children.

    A final point: as children, we were taught that people eat three meals a day.  As you may have read in Eating in a Nutshell, the optimal dietary regimen is to have 5 or 6 smaller meals every couple hours in order to keep blood sugar and insulin levels at a consistent level.  When we grow up and move out on our own, we try to maintain the eating pattern we learned in childhood, but find ourselves getting hungry between our regular meals and indulging in generally unhealthy between-meal snacks.  School schedules, work schedules and life in general seems to support the three-meals-a-day routine, so breaking away from this stubbornly engrained routine can be tricky.

    Emotional/Psychological Food Consumption

    I know a woman who is currently suffering with obesity due to (I am fairly sure) serious emotional issues suffered in her teens.  This particular woman is exceptionally religious, which plays into the whole matter.  At 17 years old, she became pregnant by a man she had only recently met and to whom she was not married, something that was in direct conflict with her religious beliefs.  Because of the guilt she feels over carrying a child conceived out of wedlock, this woman took to food as her source of comfort.  Despite numerous attempts to lose the weight on a physical level, the emotional root of the problem that led her to over-eat in the first place was never addressed, and her every attempt to lose weight always failed in the long run.

    People eat for any variety of reasons that have nothing to do with hunger.  Personally, I am a boredom eater - I eat because there's nothing better to do.  Some people eat whenever they face a stressful situation.  Still others eat because they experienced a life of want when they were younger - having no food as a child, they eat often and in larger amounts as an adult as a form of defense against future shortages.  If there is underlying guilt or depression, such as in the story of the woman who became pregnant, the individual might seek out the comfort of food, since it does not pass judgement against her and brings a sense of comfort.

    Part of the process of dropping fat and gaining control of our dietary lives has to be identifying the underlying reasons for why we overeat in the first place.  Taking an assessment of when food is consumed and the feelings experienced in that timeframe can be a great asset in learning to control eating habits.  Does the urge to binge follow a stressful event?  Is the eating accompanied by sadness or periods of introspection?  Answering these and similar other questions might be the first steps towards managing emotional eating patterns that have the potential to keep us fat.

    Taking Stock

    If you are overweight and overeating, take a while to think about why it is that you eat.  Think about these questions:

    Why do I eat even when I'm not hungry?
    How do I feel before I eat non-meal foods?
    Do I eat when I'm alone?  Frustrated?  Angry?  Stressed?
    How do I feel after I've eaten?
    What past events might have caused me to turn to food for comfort?  Was I picked on as a child for being too small?  Do I feel a sense of guilt for something (parents' divorce, violating my religious beliefs, a traumatic event, etc.)?

    As we begin to answer these questions, we can begin to address the underlying reasons for why we eat in excess.  Knowledge is the first step towards change - and self knowledge can change the self.

    Be well!