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The Agnostic Pulpit: Food, Obesity, and the Quality of Life

 article about The Agnostic Pulpit: Food, Obesity, and the Quality of Life

This article belongs to Obesity and weight issues theme.


Many years ago another psychologist and I at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio did a study of weight control among women. We used two groups of about fifteen women who were all attending weekly meetings of a self-help group for weight control. One group got a weekly two hour group therapy session. The other group was given a series of behavioral activities to work on. Both groups received nutritional counseling.

The first group took part in standard group therapy. The second group used a program of Skinnerian behavioral learning techniques. In addition to getting the women weighed, we asked lots of questions at the beginning and again at the end of the ten week experiment.

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We used two groups of about fifteen women who were all attending weekly meetings of a self-help group for weight control.
Over the term of the experiment, the women in both groups lost about a pound every week for an average of ten pounds. They knew they were being evaluated.

One year later, the woman in both groups who lost weight had gained it back, some even more than before the experiment began.

This, sadly, is the usual outcome of all food restricted diets. Diets alone do not work and do not produce lasting results. A narrow focus on food, nutrition, and calories avoids the real problems that seem to lie in personality.

The women in our study were middle class women; all were married to working men. They represented the condition of middle-aged married females at that time, almost fifty years ago. They were generally home bound by children and family demands. If any of them worked, it was part time in menial work. Most had hobbies and interests that they sacrificed in order to fulfill their home and marriage responsibilities. They had given up their individual ambitions and activities in order to fill the expected role of housewife.

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They had given up their individual ambitions and activities in order to fill the expected role of housewife.
The status of women in the United States in recent decades has changed drastically. Many women now have careers, day care options for children, and husbands more used to an equal status in marriage. And yet weight and food selection remain problems for both men and women.

Behind any addiction or dependency, such as that to food, lies an attempt to feel better, to be comforted during the realities of a difficult life. Brain studies now reveal that pleasant food experiences have neurological effects similar to many drugs that induce good feelings and relief from anxiety or depression.

So, what causes so much unhappiness that food becomes self-medication to chase away dark feelings? Life choices are always choices that we think are forced upon us. But we never really lose the opportunity to make important choices. First, one can simply give up unrealistic goals and learn to be content with the situation as it is. This seems to be the philosophy offered by many religions. Generally, life is not so bad for most of us, and acceptance might mean taking joy in our place in life with the people around us as well as giving up old, unrealistic dreams and ambitions.. The old saying is, “If you can’t have what you want, learn to want what you have.” It is difficult, but it is possible.

Second, one can try one of the many forms of psychotherapy and medical treatment available to the obese; everything from surgery to radical diets and pills. These are generally less desirable than personal development and are most useful in cases of morbid obesity. The focus here is still on food and eating, not on personality change.
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Change everything from beliefs to family, work, and commitments.

But weight is not really the primary problem in most cases. The third choice available to all of us is to break free of the restraints placed on us by circumstance, family, and job. We can change our basic values, beliefs, and habits in order to develop emotionally and psychologically. Re-inventing self is a most difficult path. This third alternative, of course, involves breaking free of convention. It is the choice least appreciated by those who want us to stay as we are, but it is the one choice that emphasizes personality growth and personal freedom. This choice tells us to get up and leave whatever is holding us back. Change everything from beliefs to family, work, and commitments. The theory is that food and emotional eating will be irrelevant once life is intellectually and emotionally rewarding.

(Julian I. Taber, Ph.D. is author of Addictions Anonymous: Outgrowing Addiction with a Universal, Secular Program of Self-Development: ISBN 978-1-60145-647-2)


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