Weight Bias and Biology

The idea that our bodies know how to function also applies to people who are overweight. They experience overwhelming pressure from society, friends and family to lose weight with the often unspoken message that their weight is a sign of their own weakness and slothfulness. 

The drive for thinness and dieting is usually even more pronounced for those who are overweight. The diet industry plies the public with unsubstantiated miracle fixes for weight loss and happily reaps significant profit on the misery of others. Meanwhile, the government, medical establishment and even close family and friends all support these endeavors as signs of self-care or even self-love. The promulgation of an endless search for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow all to satisfy the misguided idea that weight is both a manipulatable data point and a sign of virtue is abhorrent. 

The accepted messages about food and weight can easily become personal rebukes of those who are overweight and even open the door to widespread, accepted prejudice. If the person is misled into conflating self-worth and weight, they are susceptible to all types of bias and mistreatment. 

Meanwhile, the human body functions solely on biological terms, irrespective of the current societal norms around weight. As I have written extensively in this blog, weight is not commensurate with health, and there are ample data to prove this point which is summarily ignored by the powerful diet industry. 

All the noise around weight and virtue drowns out the facts. Our bodies know how to manage hunger and food. Given the necessary diet, humans can live and thrive. Weight is but one data point of many that the body works to keep within a range commensurate with health, and the range is largely predetermined by our genetics. Our body size and shape are part of our inherent nature, not signs of personal virtue. 

First and foremost, food and weight are not indicators of our worth as a person. The message of biology trumps all other specious explanations of health and weight. This message needs to be trumpeted and spread to counter the overarching and destructive falsehoods spread by the diet, food and exercise industries.


The Central Myth of Eating Disorder Thoughts

A refrain of eating disorder treatment is your body knows how to function. Give it enough food and it will take care of itself. The saying begins to be trite the more often one hears it, but the challenge is to recognize how profound it really is. Ultimately, believing this simple message can help someone with an eating disorder discount the majority of what any eating disorder thoughts deem as true. 

Food is a biological necessity for life, as crucial as oxygen, water and sleep. However, of these absolutes, only food is so mutable to allow for someone to attempt to constantly manipulate and adapt their food choices. 

The confusing messages society consistently supports is that one's diet is something to work on and perfect. There's a widely accepted belief that choosing food wisely, if not perfectly, will transform weight and health, if not the course of life itself. Meanwhile, the body will digest, absorb and utilize the energy from food in its own way no matter what one eats. Weight is a data point the body manages for health and wellbeing. And the vagaries of daily life are not related at all to what one decides to have for lunch. 

The best argument to use against exaggerated, if not magical, thoughts about food and diet is that food is a basic necessity of life. Biology dictates what our body needs and how it functions. Our life course and decisions are what we can all try to affect and move through. Expecting food choice to fix life's problems means ignoring one's realities. And our lives need as much attention we can give them.


The Separation of Meaning and Weight

People engaged in recovery from an eating disorder comment on how personal and how philosophical the process is. They marvel at their internal growth and maturation and at how their view of themselves and the world has transformed. 

In the same breath, they often ask why eating disorder recovery needs to be this way. If eating disorders are largely destructive behavioral patterns, why can't behavioral treatment lead to health and wellness?

The answer lies in the fact that ingrained food behaviors tap into our basic human drive for survival. Accordingly, deeply rooted food behaviors function within the oldest and least conscious parts of our brains, parts we share with much more primitive living beings. And so once food behaviors are fixed, changing them becomes overwhelmingly difficult. The patterns exist in the least accessible parts of our psyche. 

As I wrote in the last post, once the survival instinct transitions to diet and weight management, it starts to feel as if maintaining a certain weight is as urgent as our survival. Once that instinct is triggered, changing the association is very challenging. 

The key to creating a meaningful life, one not dominates by the endless search for the perfect diet, exercise plan and weight, lies in the most successful eating disorder treatments. Although the severity of the medical and psychological risk is much greater for people who suffer from these illnesses, the methods used to change profoundly ingrained food behaviors are relevant for both. 

The medical or purely practical approach to treating people with eating disorders is hardly ever successful. Short-term improvement in health belies the course of the eating disorder. Inevitably, the eating disorder thought process hardens when someone is forced to make behavior changes. It may appease clinicians to blame the person for her illness in this situation, but the clear problem remains in the treatment decisions. 

Treatment directed towards a fuller recovery combines refeeding and improved health with a consistent message of creating a meaningful life. Using our conscious brains to introduce and reinforce the need for useful activities, important relationships and intrinsic personal value creates a foundation to combat the eating disorder thoughts.

The psychological process of recovery involves replacing the old eating disorder thoughts about food and weight with a  new philosophy focused on meaning and relationships. As the new philosophy strengthens, the old eating behaviors lose steam and normal food patterns dominate. 

Applied to the general world focused on weight and appearance, the message that dieting doesn't work is too practical. There is no personally meaningful voice or system to replace the incredibly powerful diet, food and exercise industries. It's not a surprise that even those fed up with living their life for weight loss turn to Bariatric surgery for relief rather than a compassionate and kind approach the identity and life. 

The messages competing with the seemingly perfect life of diet and exercise need to find their way into our daily awareness to be effective.