How many times have you heard a slender person saying that achieving the ideal weight is nothing more than calories in vs. calories out? Rather than being a disorder or disease, people think of overweight as simply a problem of having a weak will or eating too much.

But the problem is far more complicated than that. Although the trend of thinking of our complex human bodies as nothing more than machines that run on fuel is very prevalent, nothing could be further from the truth. The weight we are comes as a result of many contributing factors, including hormonal disturbances, genetic predisposition, stress, illness and individual metabolism.

So what is obesity?

If you or someone you love is battling with obesity or overweight, it’s important to remember that the problem has both physical and psychological components. Your doctor will tell you which weight category you fall into, but if you are overweight you most likely have encountered the judgement of others often enough to know that you are above the ideal size, anyway.

More important than your specific BMI or weight in kilograms is whether you feel happy with your eating habits, your health and your appearance. If your weight is a source of shame and is threatening your health, it makes sense to understand the root cause behind it. Punishing yourself for being overweight may help in the short term, but the damage to your self-esteem will only make it less likely you’ll lose weight in the long term.

Physical and behavioural causes of obesity

Some individuals have different metabolic rates and may have an inborn predisposition to storing fat compared to others.

Obesity is also increasing worldwide, and people have blamed more readily available food, bigger restaurant portions, inactivity, a fast food culture and poverty as some likely causes. No doubt our current lifestyles are less active than those of our grandparents.

Today, it’s frighteningly easy to get very calorie dense foods in enormous quantities at any time of day – and the cheaper and more convenient foods are almost always the worst.

Psychological causes of obesity

But wrapped up in the physical realities of overeating and bad food choices come the tangled psychology of obesity. More often than not, obese people are trapped in a vicious cycle of self-hate and poor lifestyle choices.

Suffering from depression, anxiety or stress can all increase the chance of overeating or eating poorly. Over time these habits are strengthened and we gain weight, especially if we are predisposed genetically and are not active. However, the added weight and loss of control can reduce overall self-esteem.

If an individual feels that they have very little value as a person, it’s very much easier to get trapped into eating as a defence mechanism, and so the cycle continues.

Getting help for obesity

The reason that diets fail so often is because this core of shame is not addressed, and it is these feelings of shame that make obesity a psychological as well as physical condition. For some people, gaining weight itself begins to serve as a defence mechanism, and many survivors of childhood sexual abuse have pointed to eating and becoming overweight as a way to draw attention away from themselves.

A trusted mental health professional can help you understand your unique situation. The solution, however, needs to address the physical aspect, too.

Many people have had long-lasting success using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) techniques and lifestyle modifications. Others opt for bariatric surgery, which requires psychological assessment beforehand.

Once you have a clear understanding of what role obesity is playing in your life, you can begin to decide on the approach that fits you and your life.

If you’re concerned you’re suffering from an eating issue,  Australia Counselling has therapists, counsellors and psychologists in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra and regional areas of Australia. Visit our eating issues page to search for a counsellor, therapist or psychologist in your local area who works with eating issues.

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