Fat’s Function as Protector: Insulation Against Emotional Distress

Couple walks along beach, holding hands. “If you try to lose weight by shaming, depriving, and fearing yourself, you will end up shamed, deprived, and afraid. Kindness comes first. Always.” —Geneen Roth


Adipose. Flesh. Avoirdupois. Chub. Paunch. Flab. Corpulence.

It’s difficult to think of an aspect of the human body more complex and controversial than fat, aside, perhaps, from sexuality. During medieval times, when famines could and did occur, corpulence was valued because fat symbolized wealth, or the possession of resources that conveyed invulnerability to life’s ups and downs. As such, it was seen as if not desirable, then at least neutral (Vigarello, 2013). For peasants and members of agricultural societies, obesity was practically unheard of.

In modern Western culture, however, the tables have (mostly) turned. Today, for the most part, wealthier people tend to have access to healthier, more nutrient-dense foods. The higher nutrient density keeps total calorie intake much lower, since more nutrients and fiber satiate the body quickly with fewer calories (Furman, 2011).

Less economically fortunate people, on the other hand, tend to not have much fresh, healthy food available in their neighborhoods. Even when fresh food is available, they may lack sufficient income to purchase it. Social justice activists have coined a term for when a community lacks access to healthy food: “food desert”. With fast food or junk food being much more economical and widely available to people living near or below the poverty line, it may be easier for people living in poverty to put on pounds.

The issue remains complex, with many different variables. As far as modern social attitudes towards extra fat go, many dislike it, even loathe it. Certainly, many people don’t like it on their own body, but some even become angry when they see abundant adipose tissue on someone else’s body. For some, fat is part of a truly vicious cycle of self-loathing. Geneen Roth writes that when she was in her twenties, she hated her fat so much, she wanted to slice it off with a knife. Then she would have been standing there, trembling and bleeding, but at least she would be thin.

As far as modern social attitudes towards extra fat go, many dislike it, even loathe it. Certainly, many people don’t like it on their own body, but some even become angry when they see abundant adipose tissue on someone else’s body. For some, fat is part of a truly vicious cycle of self-loathing.

Others passionately defend fat and its hosts. The fat acceptance movement has risen to defend people from fatphobia, or the unwarranted ostracism, contempt, and bullying frequently experienced by heavier people. Still others may fetishize fat, forming a subculture around the care and feeding of those too large to get out into the world and fend for themselves.

Medically speaking, fat tissue has been implicated in its associations with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. Some people debate the validity of these assertions, pointing to research showing that in some cases, being what’s considered “slightly overweight” may in fact lower mortality rates. Further, movements such as the Health at Every Size movement point out that body shapes and sizes are diverse, describe the harm restrictive dieting can cause, and work to promote health without focusing on weight loss.

The Issue of Fat

As you can see, the issue of fat is very complex. In this article I am emphatically not taking any position as to the goodness or badness, nor as to the beauty or ugliness, of this embattled tissue. Rather, I want to explore: What is fat, and what is it doing for us? There are high levels of vehemence, vitriol, and medical admonishment against fat, yet many people carry what is considered by current medical standards to be excess poundage. There must be some function or functions powerful enough to override the tremendous social forces against it. What is going on here?

First, let’s look at the overall somatic context. The human body consists of multiple types of tissues, which tend to occur in layers.

Muscle tissue comes in two types: smooth (usually involuntary, like intestines or uterus) and striated (voluntary skeletal muscles that move our limbs and support our core).

Bone, though often ignored or underrated, is an amazing part of our bodies. Living bone has a pinkish tinge and is more flexible than the rigid, white bone that comes more readily to mind. It gives structure and support, and provides “spacers” for the muscular system (without it, the muscles that attach to and move the bones would contract into tight little balls). The marrow of bones produces blood and immune cells.

Our skin (which itself comes in several layers) is a vital part of our sensory system. It blocks water loss, UV rays, and germs; regulates temperature; and provides a boundary between our bodies and the greater world.

The fascia is a connective tissue that penetrates all other tissues and binds us together. Muscles slide over its smooth surfaces, and it prevents our organs from sloshing around inside us like a big bag of goo.

Our nervous system (brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves) controls the body via nerve impulses and signals to release hormones.

Our fluid system includes blood, lymph, digestive fluids, and interstitial (between-cell) fluids. It transports oxygen, cellular wastes, hormones, glucose, and other nutrients.

And then there is fat.

Fat does many things for its host organism. As most people know, it can be considered a kind of “energy savings account” in case of famine or illness. Fat provides insulation, particularly against cold, and padding, so our bones don’t grind on the surfaces we sit or lean on. Fat forms part of the breast tissue, allowing mothers to feed their infants, and is also involved in hormone production

Some believe fat stores toxins in a way that makes them inert, or prevents them from damaging the vital organs, though I must point out that I don’t know whether this claim is backed by scientific evidence. I do recall a long-ago evening in which a friend and I took a long walk (of about three hours) to the beach. He had recently quit using marijuana and hadn’t used any at all for several months. The walk was long enough that metabolically, we both switched from running on blood glucose to primarily burning accumulated fat stores. By the time we got back to my house, he was, as they say, high as a kite—without having taken a single hit of marijuana.

And then there is another function of fat, one that’s not so commonly discussed. I don’t know whether or not it has been demonstrated in any medical literature, but eating disorder therapists (and many who overeat, binge eat, or experience a related type of disordered eating) will know this one: Fat is an emotional insulator.

How Fat Can Help Insulate Us from Emotions

Having extra fat on the body can help protect against feeling the intensity of unprocessed emotions. It’s like a thick coat of insulation on an extremely high-voltage wire. In this regard, it helps keep us in some semblance of balance, able to exist and function without becoming completely obliterated by our own emotional charge.

We have to live life on life’s terms, and these terms are not always kind. At any moment, even when we are young and vulnerable children, life can hand us events that are just too big for us to deal with in an efficient or comfortable manner.

We have to live life on life’s terms, and these terms are not always kind. At any moment, even when we are young and vulnerable children, life can hand us events that are just too big for us to deal with in an efficient or comfortable manner. The emotional aspect of our survival energies tends to be unbelievably strong. Repression may cut us off from old, unprocessed emotions, but blocking or repressing emotions may only work up to a certain extent.

What might happen if a person carries such large emotional charges without insulation of some sort, or other cut-off strategies such as substance abuse? I have heard many people making statements similar to these:

  • “You know those cables that come out of the big power plants? Well, I felt like I was plugged into one of those. Or riding a lightning bolt. I just couldn’t shut it off.” (Note that the relationship between trauma and bipolar is sometimes murky; experiencing a state such as this does not necessarily mandate a diagnosis of bipolar.)
  • “I couldn’t move. I couldn’t get out of bed. I tried. It was like when you push the gas pedal in your car, but nothing happens.”
  • “I just felt awful. It was like wave after wave of the worst, cruddiest feeling was washing over me.”
  • “When I lost weight, I constantly felt vulnerable. Like everyone was looking at me and could see right to my core. When I’m fat, I’m invisible.”

Still others have talked about the sense that their experience with psychosis or other mental health issues began in part because their systems just couldn’t contain the terrible traumas they had experienced. I believe this sheer intensity is the true meaning of the word overwhelmed and, in my experience, sufficient to explain why some people find themselves overweight.

These days, many people are talking about the Adverse Childhood Experiences study. A physician treating obesity at Kaiser noticed that his most successful patients—those who had lost the most weight—were dropping out of his program. Intrigued, he arranged for follow-up with the ex-participants, who shared that their weight loss brought up old traumatic emotions from childhood. It was easier to live life with morbid obesity, despite any pain and inconvenience it might cause, than it was to face those old feelings.

That is testament to the power of old trauma, and of fat as a semi-conscious strategy to help contain it.

Certainly, the issue of excess body fat is very complex, and so are the people who carry it. Genetics undoubtedly play some role in a person’s predisposition to weight gain. Others may live in food deserts or, out of choice or necessity, fall into habits that support weight gain. Athletes who get injured and don’t change their food intake are prone to gaining weight. Some people also tend to overeat as a way of bolstering their overall energy when tired (Dr. Judith Orloff calls this “energy defensive eating”).

In short, if you have a lifestyle where you are constantly running on fatigue and overwhelm and/or neglecting your own needs for the needs of others, it can be easy to gain weight—particularly if you have a “sit-down” job. Researchers and medical experts have begun to point out that sitting for long periods of time can negatively impact health. Some have even called it the “new smoking.”

Society exerts tremendous pressure to conform to a thinner body standard. This social pressure often contributes to internal pressure. But all people, regardless of their size, deserve compassion and kindness—from themselves as well as from others—not judgment or ostracism. If someone is insulating their feelings with a layer of fat, then the more cruelty they experience, the more entrenched their defenses are likely to become. Even if their size causes them distress, they may find it all the more difficult to lose weight.

Our bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and we cannot completely control the way they look. We really never know what life will end up bringing us, and to some extent, we must accept what life has already handed us. As with any aspect of the human condition–there but for the grace of luck, circumstance, and the genetic lottery, go all of us.

This page contains at least one affiliate link for the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, which means GoodTherapy.org receives financial compensation if you make a purchase using an Amazon link.

Those who struggle with difficult emotions and/or overwhelm and desire to lose weight but haven’t been able to (in other words, if this article speaks to you) might consider working with a compassionate therapist trained in helping people increase affect tolerance and move gently into and out of old feelings.

“Fat-bashing in all its varied forms–criticism, exclusion, shaming, fat talk, self-deprecation, jokes, gossip, bullying–is one of the last socially acceptable forms of prejudice. From a very young age, before they can walk away or defend themselves, women are taught that they are how they look, not what they do or what they know.” —Robyn Silverman, Good Girls Don’t Get Fat: How Weight Obsession Is Messing Up Our Girls and How We Can Help Them Thrive Despite It


  1. Afzal, S., Tybjaerg-Hansen, A., Jensen, G., & Nordestgaard, B. G. (2016). Change in body mass index associated with lowest mortality in Denmark, 1976-2013. JAMA. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.4666
  2. Brown, H. (2015, November 17). The obesity paradox: Scientists now think that being overweight can protect your health. Quartz Media. Retrieved from https://qz.com/550527/obesity-paradox-scientists-now-think-that-being-overweight-is-sometimes-good-for-your-health
  3. Furman, J. (2011). Eat to live: The amazing nutrient-rich program for fast and sustained weight loss. New York, NY: Little Brown and Co.
  4. Gerstacker, D. (2014, September 5). Sitting is the new smoking—7 ways a sedentary lifestyle is killing you. The Active Times. Retrieved from https://www.theactivetimes.com/sitting-new-smoking-7-ways-sedentary-lifestyle-killing-you?utm_source=huffington%2Bpost&utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=sitting
  5. Roth, G. (2011) Women, food, and God. New York, NY: Scribner.
  6. Scutti, S. (2017, September 22). Yes, sitting too long can kill you, even if you exercise. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2017/09/11/health/sitting-increases-risk-of-death-study/index.html
  7. Vigarello, G. (2013). The metamorphoses of fat: A history of obesity. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • jennifer

    February 5th, 2018 at 8:48 PM

    good blog. love this blog

  • Andrea Bell, LCSW

    February 6th, 2018 at 10:57 AM

    Thank you!

  • jennifer

    February 5th, 2018 at 8:49 PM

    helpful blog

  • Azalea

    February 6th, 2018 at 8:25 AM

    Oh gosh. I had a little cousin who wanted to do the knife thing. She told me she had dreams of taking a knife and cutting out all her “problem areas.” She was only 17, and she wasn’t even overweight, medically speaking. (Her mom had some LONG talks with her, and she’s better now, but still. 17 years old.)

    Maybe fat works as emotional protection for people who’ve been through sexual abuse and such, but personally? I feel like fat is the cause of distress more often than it’s an insulator. Okay, technically societal prejudice is the cause, but you know what I mean.

  • Andrea Bell, LCSW

    February 6th, 2018 at 10:56 AM

    Wow, I’m really sorry to hear about your cousin’s struggles. I’m glad she’s better now!
    These things aren’t always linear. Dr. Larry Heller talks about feedback loops between mind and body, and how they can either support or undermine self regulation. Having a lot of fat tissue can absolutely cause distress. It may not have been the initial cause of distress though. And that distress may be protecting and distracting them from the deeper distress of early developmental trauma.

  • llene B, LCSW

    February 12th, 2018 at 4:38 AM

    Nice article Andrea. Thank you for sharing a great multi-layered perspective on this complex issue, one that is pervasive for so many. Your article resonates with me both on a personal level and as a somatically oriented therapist.

  • Andrea Bell, LCSW

    February 13th, 2018 at 4:18 PM

    Thanks Ilene! I agree, this issue is so pervasive for so many. As they say, “the personal is political.” I feel that we somatic therapists could explore how we can support our societies, in coming back into a better (and less painful) balance with this issue.

  • Tels

    October 31st, 2018 at 6:00 PM

    I have to save that the idea put forward in this article.. tat fault can protect someone from distressing emotions is ridiculous! It’s one thing to note that sometimes overweight people have suffered trauma etc that they find hard to cope with but to jump ahead to saying the weight protects from facing the emotional response to those things is not at all able to be substantiated and can lead to all kinds of misassumptions and poor (even dangerous unethical) therapy approaches.

  • Teez

    July 11th, 2019 at 6:34 PM

    I agree with you. There is no evidence that fat insulates a person from feeling emotions or remembering traumatic experiences. I also think most overweight people feel very conspicuous, not “invisible”.

  • Doreen

    July 17th, 2019 at 7:30 PM

    I found this to be a relatable article, and I haven’t found much on this topic at all. While I can understand other commenters’ sense of frustration with the lack of evidence base for these experiences, I also share the experience of the insulating effect of my extra kilograms of fat. It is a sense of protection against rejection that makes sense if I buy into the idea that people will reject me if I’m overweight. So if I lose the weight like my conscious self wants to, people would possibly reject me for reasons that feel a whole lot closer to home than a superficial thing like fat. So then I get to always have a reason to reject myself (“i’m too fat”, “i’m not pretty enough” or whatever) instead of actually confronting the fear of rejection on a deeper level from others. It’ hard for me to express this in a clear way, because it has been such a journey to try and figure this out for myself. I have been somewhat overweight since infancy, and I discovered an early childhood trauma as a baby, where I was badly injured by a caregiver, and it was covered up. I can’t help but wonder if it has always been an emotional comfort for me on some unconscious level. I had success once in losing some weight as part of a yoga challenge, and it was threatening to feel good about myself in the most contradictory way. I felt i also lost a “friend” in food when i was restricting my diet during this time to unprocessed foods only. Respecting my body in this way seemed foreign and scary. I hope I can do more research on this. Please share further resources if you have any!!! Loved the idea of emotional regulation work to supplement and support weight loss. I’ve been disappointed by personal trainers who have been ill-equipped to manage big emotions

  • FHF

    May 23rd, 2020 at 12:06 PM

    Thanks you and I admire you to have the courage the talk about this,This was a very meaningful post for me.Thank you.

  • Dina

    February 3rd, 2021 at 7:19 AM

    I completely second this article my body automatically starts putting on pounds when I’m in an abusive relationship, and my diet doesn’t change a bit.. In fact I’m a complete health freak, I eat no dairy, meat or sugar, no gluten soy or eggs. I am a nutritionist and an ayurvedic practitioner who specializes in allergen free diets and cooking. Whenever I leave an abusive relationship or a threatening situation again without changing my diet or exercise regimen at all, I start to shed the pounds. i have been convinced for years that my body tries to protect me from abuse, anxiety or is alerting me something isn’t right when I am unwilling to see it.

  • Alexandria

    September 27th, 2021 at 6:52 PM

    Thank you Doreen for sharing your story. And thank you for this article. I found it after a google search because I had similar experiences to Doreen. I have always had fat around my midsection even when I was smaller, and I grew up being abused. As an adult, I have gotten skinny, but kept my midsection. At one point, I was losing the fat around my midsection and I was in the middle of exiting an abusive relationship and without therapy…I literally have never felt so exposed! I felt naked and vulnerable, so naked that I binged ate in order to gain weight back, hoping to get fat around my midsection again. I don’t know the science behind it, but even now, as a size 4, I need fat around my waist to feel safe until I can work through the trauma and pain I have experienced since a young child. We have to remember that science is meant to prove what is happening in life so that we can learn and grow from it and create a cure or preventative measure, not to create a new phenomena. This exists, and is real, it just hasn’t been validated yet by science, but it has been validated by real experiences.

  • Elizabeth

    December 21st, 2021 at 8:41 PM

    Fat as an emotional insulator — that idea totally resonates with me. Thanks for this article.
    I think I’ll have to find & re-read my copy of Susie Orbach’s 1978 classic, Fat is a Feminist Issues.

  • Paka

    January 15th, 2022 at 8:06 AM

    “ex-participants, who shared that their weight loss brought up old traumatic emotions from childhood. It was easier to live life with morbid obesity, despite any pain and inconvenience it might cause, than it was to face those old feelings.
    That is testament to the power of old trauma, and of fat as a semi-conscious strategy to help contain it.”
    Please read “Molecules of Emotion” by Candace Pert. In the 1980’s she discovered and explained neuropeptides, which she called “molecules of emotion”. Neuropeptides act as messengers between the brain and the immune system. And when we cannot process the trauma, our bodies insulate the neuropeptides with fat molecules to protect us. Much later, when we try to lose the weight, those fat molecules dissolve and in releasing the original neuropeptides what the person experience is that exact past unprocessed trauma.

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