Sanctioned Chronic Undereating: One Factor in the Obesity Epidemic

The principle that starving can actually cause an eating disorder is, from much of the feedback to a recent post (The Biology of Starvation), eye-opening to many, especially since dieting is commonplace in today's world. The modern drive for thinness, in its many guises, fuels our collective desire to lose weight and helps us not bat an eye at the crazy schemes to do so. The concept that our bodies will adapt, mostly negatively, to being starved, is shocking to many. It's not obvious how society condones and even encourages such reckless and dangerous behavior. Although recent posts in this blog have increased awareness that there is a biological response to starvation, they haven't reviewed the many ways starving is sanctioned in the modern world.

Dieting is the most obvious example. The diet industry is a multi-billion dollar business that takes many forms. Health-oriented programs such as Weight Watcher's, Jenny Craig and Overeaters Anonymous provide supportive therapeutic environments for weight loss. Normalized eating may be the long term goal of these programs, but they never shake their emphasis on weight loss as a lifestyle.

Self-help or "healthy eating" cookbooks encourage undereating as a daily life choice, as if it were a choice, while not admitting the meals are just very low in calories and not sufficient. Many diet programs now include meal order services which make it even easier to see starvation as a daily goal. Juice cleanses excuse total starvation to rid the body of "toxic elements" and have even become a point of envy in certain social circles.

Bariatric surgery provides medical interventions that can make anyone capable of starving--a physical impediment diet. And so we are surrounded by facets of every day life that inure us to the concept of not eating. But never is it pointed out that starvation has serious medical consequences.

Advertising and fashion business concepts give a visual representation of the same message. Clothing advertisements continue to show women and men who are underweight with very low body fat. Companies such as Abercrombie and Fitch experience few repercussions for celebrating that they won't make clothes past a certain size. Any media presence of a person, especially a woman, of a more typical size is still noted as an anomaly. Again modern life normalizes starvation and encourages us all to want to look underweight.

Another means to starvation a reader recently pointed out is athletics. Many sports or physical activities demand starvation either to reach or maintain very low weights. Gymnastics, wrestling and ballet all focus on weight loss as a critical part of the sport, and much has been written about the connection between these endeavors and eating disorders. Competitive athletes or dancers often link the onset of the eating disorder to enforced starvation but find themselves unable to get better afterwards.

We live in a world focused on obesity and the overabundance processed food. Needless to say, these are public health problems of a large magnitude. The counterbalance to obesity is dieting, undereating and supposedly "healthy eating." As government, regulators and prominent writers tackle obesity, the solutions tout tried and true methods of regulating our intake, cooking, whole foods and knowledge about food choices, but it's not clear this advice can affect the population at large. The experts ignore the fact that starvation plays a more insidious role in daily life--the unidentified yin to obesity's yang--and the community at large still tolerates messages promoting undereating as a solution to our larger problems of being overweight.

The connection between starvation and obesity won't be obvious to people without knowledge of eating disorders. The biology of starvation is only one of the basic principles of eating disorder treatment. A second, just as relevant principle about eating disorders from this blog is that undereating promotes overeating. Not only does starvation often trigger an eating disorder but it also cycles into overeating, weight gain and obesity. Serial dieters show escalating weight gain over time. After a period of starvation and weight loss, we are biologically programmed to experience intense hunger and overeat to compensate, hoarding reserves for the next enforced famine. A simple equation emerges from these two principles of eating disorders: without addressing starvation, obesity won't go away. And that needs to be an obvious point to prominent people facing the obesity epidemic. 

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