Dieting: Our National Obsession

Woman hugging a scaleA few days ago, I headed into the locker room at my gym after a workout. A TV was tuned to a morning talk show hosted by a couple of women who were talking to their guest, a dietician, about yo-yo dieting. The hosts peppered their guest with questions, speaking so quickly it was giving me a headache.

“What’s the best way to lose weight?”
“What should you do if you want to lose weight really fast?”
“What’s the easiest way to lose weight?”

The poor dietician was attempting to explain the effects on the body of losing and re-gaining weight, the functions of ghrelin and leptin (hormones that are involved in appetite regulation), and the importance of eating enough healthful food throughout the day to maintain blood sugar levels and provide nourishment. Her responses were being trampled by the hosts’ enthusiastic comments and inquiries.

I thought about what the dietician was saying: eat well, eat breakfast, eat moderately, eat often enough, give your body what it needs. She wasn’t answering the hosts’ questions by giving tips for quick weight loss. She was describing the hazards of dieting and the importance of informed, balanced eating. It wasn’t sexy, it wasn’t what generally makes for tantalizing television. It was sound information and wise advice. I imagined that the hosts were trying to keep their viewers from changing channels by keeping things moving and asking about topics they knew would maintain viewers’ interest, such as how to lose weight and lose it quickly.

I’ve asked the members of the groups I run for women with disordered eating whether they would want to change their relationships with food if it had no effect on their weight and size. They usually look at me quizzically, as though I’d asked if they would be interested in breathing if there were no air. I explain that this question is to help get their focus off of weight and onto the issues driving their eating problems. A troubled relationship with food is about something else—emotional and psychological hungers, a fractured relationship with one’s self. But weight, be it anxiety around gaining it or desire to lose it, grabs the spotlight. Our society, with its ever-increasing obesity rates and “War on Obesity” rhetoric, loves weight management and dieting. TV shows like “The Biggest Loser” draw big audiences. Yet chasing quick weight loss takes a person further and further away from a healthy, relaxed relationship with food and body.

In order to move from a conflicted relationship with food to a healthy and peaceful one, one must, ironically, let go of the attachment to being thin. I use the word “attachment” here in the Buddhist sense: that what we attach ourselves too—what we must have, what we refuse to let go of—entraps and imprisons us. A story I heard a long time ago illustrates this concept: a zookeeper approaches a monkey in a cage, and holds out a piece of candy. The monkey slips his hand through the bars and grabs the candy. He tried to pull his fist back through the bars, but cannot. He is stuck. In order to get his hand back into the cage, he must let go of the candy. But he wants the candy. So he keeps holding on, and can’t go anywhere. But he gets to keep the candy, with his fist stuck outside the cage, and with the hope that somehow he will eventually figure out a way to eat it.

The flip side of attachment is aversion: operating in a way that prevents or avoids what one fears or can’t tolerate. The counterpart to “attachment to thin” is “aversion to fat.” Both of these entail being stuck in a way of living in which self-worth is tied to the size and weight of one’s body. It means not being free, not being comfortable in one’s own skin, needing to be thin to feel OK about one’s self. Being well and whole involves being willing to encounter our aversions. It means letting go of the object of our attachment if it prevents us from being free.

This doesn’t make for compelling television or gossip. It doesn’t sell diet books or weight-loss supplements. Instead, it paves the path to a comfortable, secure relationship with one’s self.

© Copyright 2010 by Deborah Klinger, MA, LMFT, CEDS, therapist in Durham, North Carolina. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Tammy Humeny

    Tammy Humeny

    April 19th, 2010 at 3:34 PM

    Thanks for writing this article. Great point, I love the example of the monkey holding onto the candy. Thinness is a National Obsession, and it’s so destructive.

    Over 95% of diet’s don’t work, but people want to believe they do.

    As long as people hold on to this “thin” obsession, much like the monkey holding onto the candy, they will not be able to achieve inner peace. If only they knew that once they achieved inner peace first, often eating habit’s, exercise and self care change too.

    I preach healthy eating and loving ourselves through healthy nutrition, but quite honestly, nobody wants to hear it. My friend pointed out yesterday, what I call healthy nutrition is “dieting” to most others. I explain that my healthy food tastes delicious…but my friends eyes were already glazed over. Instead she’d like a little “treat” to reward herself with. You get my picture.

    We live in a culture of quick fixes and immediate gratification, along with very unbalanced lifestyles. People are not meeting their needs in healthy ways anymore….instead…they consume, consume, consume to feel better!!! Buy this, eat that, etc.

    That is why therapy is so valuable, as it lifts people from the fuzzy fog in which they are living. It helps them love themselves again and helps them find healthy alternatives to self care! I’m not sure why people are so adverse to therapy, it’s so transformative. Why not create inner change that creates lasting transformation??!! It’s a no brainer to me.

    Thanks again!

    Tammy Humeny

  • IRWIN

    IRWIN

    April 20th, 2010 at 12:14 AM

    As from my own experiences with my mom(as a child),my sisters(later on),and my wife(presently), what I have learnt is that women in general want to lose weight and want to lose it fast! And this ‘fast’ is almost instantaneous for them! The reason for this is the media which potrays that if your’re not slim and of the ideal weight, then you’re worth nothing and that your’re unattractive. i think this has caused problems to more women than issues of over-weight has itself!

  • Iris

    Iris

    April 20th, 2010 at 2:51 AM

    As someone who has fought the weight battle for much of my adult life I can easily identify with that pressure to be thin and to meet not only society’s expectations about what I should be but also my own and the expectations that I had created for myself. Having been on diet after diet I can tell you that it is a lot easier to say that you are making peace with letting go of that thin attachment but that is difficult especially when that is what you have lived for year after year, diet after diet. Let me just say that I am still searching for that piece in that part of my life. I hope to find that soon but right now I am not there.

  • brooks B.

    brooks B.

    April 20th, 2010 at 4:50 AM

    most people,especially women,tend to think that dieting means to starve themselves.but this is not true at all.the fact is that dieting means to have a balanced diet and a controlled one with respect to the ingredients not with respect to not eating at all!

  • Hannah

    Hannah

    April 20th, 2010 at 4:06 PM

    While it is true that most people take dieting as an obsession and go on a war-footing,it would not be right to generalize this to women.There are a lot of men out there who do that too,and also there are definitely women out there who take a proper diet and are at comfort when they are dieting!

  • Kat

    Kat

    August 22nd, 2013 at 7:30 AM

    For me, when all of the media reporting, advertisements and medical reports about obesity rates, fitness and dieting is in my face 24-7, it makes me feel very inadequate. The BMI is wrong too! If a person has a lot of muscle mass they will always be obese. Look at the beautiful people, some celebrities who think they are too fat and commit suicide. Something has to give with how we look at ourselves.

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