The Weight of the Nation, Part 2: Choices - Shame & Stress

I’ve been watching and reviewing each part of the new HBO/NIH series The Weight of The Nation. Episode two focused on “Choices,” presumably the choices we make as individuals to get fat or skinny.

Now, you all know I have a huge problem with setting it up that way. Turns out, so does HBO. They just don’t realize it. The cognitive dissonance in this episode amazed me.

Since I have so much to say on this one, I’m breaking it into three parts. This one is about shame, stress, and mindfulness.


I hurt when I hear the stories. Vivia talks about being poked to see if she would burst, and kids always trying to hook her up with the fat boys, and postponing all her dreams of the things she wants in life because of her size. Another woman talks about not having any family photos on the wall for her kids to see.

This pain is real. I won’t discount it, or say they should feel any differently than they do. What I want to consider instead is whether the fat is really the cause of these powerfully shameful feelings.

What are you letting your fat hold you back from?

What are you letting your fat hold you back from? (photo from chubstr)

I say it’s not the fat, it’s the judgement. It’s what we tell ourselves the fat means. It’s the way our culture treats fat people. It’s about bullying being tolerated. It’s about seeing our fat and putting labels like lazy, slob, ugly, stupid, sick on ourselves.

The woman with no family photos doesn’t want to see herself in that picture. But her kids do. They love her. They know she is a worthy human being, and they’ll want to be able to look back at pictures and remember her when she’s gone.

Vivia might not be able to sky dive at this size, but she could pursue the relationship she dreams of. She says she doesn’t want a “chubby chaser” like that’s the only kind of person who could want her. I know it’s not, because here I am, with my thin partner, but I’ve been in love with someone much larger before. People who can love you both for your soul and your body, no matter your size, are out there. We may be harder to find, but we exist.

Body image problems that interfere with your life aren’t something exclusive to fat people. They are a side-effect of our culture, and something that needs to be confronted from as many angles as possible.

Stress and Weight Gain

I think most people find that stress impacts both their health and their size. When I’m stressed out I drop weight instantly. Most people seem to pack it on.

It turns out this isn’t just about “emotional eating.” There is a real, physiological process going on. the show explains that when we experience a threat, our biochemistry changes. Adrenaline and cortizol flood our bodies. Enzymes turn fat cells into fat storing machines, and our body screams out for sweet and high fat foods. When cortizol has stimulated appetite you can pretty much forget about “controlling” it. If the food is there, you will eat it. The expert says, “Surrounded by food, we will take it. What we need to do is take some control back.”

This phoenomenon isn’t limited to humans, either. Recently, it was shown that grasshoppers who are stressed out by spiders eat more carbs!

So why are they telling us that calorie counting is the answer? Wouldn’t learning to lead less stressful lives make more sense?

Undoing Cravings

The show does give us some good ideas for helping to deal with these physical cravings. Eating affects opioid levels in the brain. When you hear opioid, think opium! Yes, opioids are addictive. I know this first hand, as gluten and casein both form opioids when they are not properly digested and I was powerfully addicted to them before I did the GAPS diet, and actually experienced withdrawal symptoms.

So if you are cutting out your comfort foods and aren’t set up to make it through withdrawal, it’s ridiculous to expect you to simply resist temptation. You need strategies. Exercise is one thing that can take the edge off. Not only does it reduce stress, it also increases opioid levels in your brain. You get your fix and reduce your stress cravings at the same time.

Another thing they talk about is mindful eating. They say the point is to let you eat out of your caloric need rather than your emotions, though. I don’t see it exactly that way. I think mindful eating is about changing your relationship with food. It’s about paying attention to it. Allowing yourself to enjoy it. If I feel guilty about eating something, I won’t pay much attention. I’ll wolf it down as fast as I can and pray no one saw me.

Mindful Eating

But mindful eating is different. You get to eat the brownie. Or the tub of ice cream. Or the Pringles. But before you take a bite, you’re going to look at it. You’re going to think about where it came from, and what it’s going to do for your body and your soul. You’re going to smell it, savoring the aroma, before you even take a bite. And when you take that bite, you’re going to pay attention to the texture, check in with how it’s making you feel, and enjoy or dislike that feeling. Many people find that when they eat mindfully, the amount of food and the types of foods they want change.

Even better, the layers and guilt and shame around food fall off. That’s weight I’m always happy to see people drop!

Support Systems

We met Gigi, a call center manager who found ways to combat the stress eating and sedentary lifestyle that her job led to. Mandatory overtime, short breaks, and demanding personal lives wore on many of the people who worked there. They found themselves developing health problems and gaining weight. Their group provides fruits and veggies as snacks, holds health fairs, has an incentive program whereby people can celebrate making healthier choices, and goes for walks together on breaks. People of all sizes can and do participate.

This is great stuff! Creating a healthier culture for people of all sizes, and a support network to help with the emotional, physical, and practical challenges we face when trying to improve our health is key to making change sustainable.

Solving the Problem?

They say you must lose weight by eating less and exercising more (though they debunk that assertion themselves), with constant vigilance, for the rest of your life.

A woman says, “That’s part of the price you pay for allowing yourself to get overweight in the first place.”

That breaks my heart.

  • “The price you pay” – a curse, a deserved punishment
  • “for allowing yourself” – was this a choice? really?
  • “to get overweight” – not a descriptive word: a judgmental word, based on averages and other people, not your unique life
  • “in the first place” – when was that? when you were a child? when you went through a really difficult time? after having children? when you were sick or injured?

Fad diets are too good to be true. Even in the show, we hear person after person list the diets they’ve tried, and then tell us how much weight they gained back… over and over again. NutriSystem, South Beach, Atkins, 7 day, healthy fats, low fats, non fats, low carb, Master Cleanse, Weight Watchers, Cabbage Diet, and how many dollars spent? None of it was sustainable. One of the experts on the show is right on when she says: “The diet industry has no reason to solve the problem. Solving the problem puts them out of business.”

I’d go another step, though. It’s not just about the diet industry not wanting to “solve the problem” of obesity. It’s that they don’t want the paradigm shift that it’s not all about what we look like!

Weight loss is not the answer we’re waiting for. If we want better health, and happier lives, we need to do the things that lead to better health and happier lives whether they change our size and shape or not.

The changes we need to make are not a one-size-fits-all proposition. We are unique, with our own emotional and physical landscapes, and even if we don’t achieve (or even strive for) perfect health we are still worthy human beings.

As the show itself points out, risk factors for disease (and disease itself) can be reduced with lifestyle changes that don’t necessarily result in weight loss. And these lifestyle changes? They are not a punishment. They (eventually) feel good!
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1 comment to The Weight of the Nation, Part 2: Choices – Shame & Stress

  • Reading this reminds me of how sick we have become as a culture overall. And that comment about “letting ourselves” get fat, pah. Mine was caused by being on anti-depressants for three years, at a time when such side effects were not well-documented.

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