I am going to admit right now that I have a love-hate relationship with asking Why. There are a lot of scientific issues where I want to know why something occurs the way it does or how something came about in history. I’m just curious that way and I realize that knowing the Why or the How doesn’t necessarily add anything to the outcome beyond satisfying my curiosity. When it comes to obesity and losing weight, I think knowing the Why can be risky.
When you end up gaining as much weight as I did (+/- 450 lbs), does it really matter Why I gained weight? Other than a medical-physical reason such as a problem with my thyroid or another hormone, the Why is pretty much irrelevant. I can tell you when I started putting on a lot of weight and I know it correlates to my horrible home life while I was in middle school. If you wanted a Why in my case, that would probably be it. Does it solve anything? Does knowing that add anything to the outcome? Nope, not really! Living at home really really sucked and my escape from it was eating bags of chips, cookies and whatever else was available and doing it repeatedly. End result: I learned to ‘solve’ my emotional stress with food. Not a whole lot of insight there: most people who are overweight ‘medicate’ themselves with food!
Does looking back at that extremely stressful time in my childhood and drawing the conclusion that I overate to soothe negative emotions help me with my current weight loss? That one can go either way: since I know I am a stress-eater, I can take steps to use other non-food methods to relieve my stress but do I have to go back to ‘when I first started to gain weight, it was because of the stress in my childhood and I overate to relieve that stress’? Again, most of us know by the time we are adults that we are stress-eaters and knowing that doesn’t contribute anything unless we take steps to manage our stress without food! But beyond providing interesting but not necessarily useful information about ourselves, there is a small danger associated with digging up this Why.
That danger has to do with blame. A recent post was about shifting the blame for why you aren’t losing weight or why you might be overweight now. Blaming it on our DNA or our family’s eating habits are common: it’s just an accident of biology or a family dynamic. If a lot of your family is chubby or obese, you are just like everyone else! If you’ll excuse the pun, it’s no big deal!
The problem comes when you can point your finger at one act or one time in your life as The Reason Why and you refuse to move forward from that point. In my case, I can blame my initial weight gain on my parents’ crappy marriage and the roller-coaster home life that ensued. As I said before, knowing that doesn’t help me say no when I’m standing in Safeway’s bakery section debating whether I really ‘need’ that piece of German chocolate cake for dessert, but it does offer me an excuse to get it! “This is how I deal with stress and it’s been a horrible week!”; “I can’t help being obese- this is how I learned to deal with life!”; “I’ve been fat since I was a kid and it’s not my fault my parents didn’t stop me from eating!” Shifting blame, anyone?
For some of us, digging up the Why becomes our End Goal instead of developing healthier eating habits. There are a million different reasons we might gain weight: a medical condition, an injury, an emotional issue, or the simple fact that food was scarce for a time in our lives and we learned to overcompensate. While all of these can be the cause of our weight gain, knowing that only helps us lose the weight if we take steps to correct the cause. In my case, it took me a few years to get distance and perspective on Why I gained the weight I did. Obviously, while I was in the middle of that horrible home life, making a connection between scarfing bags of potato chips and zoning out so I don’t have to listen to my parents screaming at each other was pretty much impossible. Looking back, it’s become pretty clear that my weight began to get out of control the crazier things got at home, but at the time I didn’t realize it was even possible to ‘medicate’ oneself with food.
After making the connection as an adult, it’s been pretty easy to draw connections between “I’m feeling crazy-stressed right now!” and the desire to wolf down carrot cake: “let’s forget how stressed we are by eating something yummy!” or even not-yummy. Sometimes eating until we feel sick or eating just to eat or eating ‘so it’s all gone’: all of those are options to avoid the negative emotions we don’t want to deal with! I mean, it worked when I was a kid, didn’t it?
No, it didn’t work. I felt better for the few minutes I was eating but gaining all that weight just made so many things that much harder. It was hard to find clothes that fit; I was ridiculed by classmates, family members and even a few teachers for being overweight. It was a continual problem between my mom and me. Everything in my life that wasn’t already in chaos because of the poor family dynamics was thrown into chaos because of my ballooning weight. My weight became the focus of how awful things were at home: my parents blamed my weight on each other; it was a constant landmine at home and the more there were problems at home, the more I ate and the bigger I got. Eating my problems only added to my problems!
This is what I need to take away from Why I Gained Weight: eating my emotions made everything worse! Going forward, I need to remind myself that eating cake or chips or bread or anything does not solve any problems at all unless that problem is “my body needs fuel.” Eating because I am hungry is the only reason I need to eat! Even then, I don’t have to eat “right now!” just because I am hungry, especially if there aren’t any healthy options around. If I can wait until later when I can eat something healthy or something I really enjoy, then I can wait to eat. We’ve all stared into the fridge or the pantry looking for something to eat and asking ourselves “what am I hungry for?” We aren’t really hungry because if we were, we’d eat what was there, whether it’s eggs, broccoli, a can of soup, etc. The fact that we’re ‘hungry for something’ means we’re looking for comfort or distraction, not food!
We all have unhappy events in our lives, some of them much more traumatic than others. Some of us learned to deal with these incidences by eating our emotions and some of us turned to other methods to deal with the emotional and psychological fallout. However we’ve chosen to deal with them, if our method is unhealthy (like overeating), then it is adding to our problems, not helping us deal with them. When it comes to our weight, knowing Why we gained weight initially only helps us if we take that incident or learned habit and use it to find ways to correct the detrimental behavior.
Yes, it sucks having to find other ways of dealing with stress. Sometimes we have to face the yucky emotions and just deal with them. Stress is uncomfortable, but until we find a healthy way of dealing with our negative emotions and situations, eating our stress only adds to the stress in our lives. It may be that we have to learn meditation or a breathing technique or prayer or even a counselor. All of these techniques are healthier than eating our emotions. There’s also no rule that says you have to find only one technique either! In some situations I simply tell myself “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it” because worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet is just adding more stress. In some situations I go to the gym and spend some time in the pool. My Go-To Stress Relievers? My pets! I go home, spend some time playing with them and they are such a healthy distraction that I feel better almost immediately (and they are calorie free!)