Nick's Headspace: Obesity – Is it more than just greed and laziness?

September 28, 2011

Nick's Headspace: Obesity – Is it more than just greed and laziness?

“There were 1.5 billion dangerously overweight people worldwide last year, while 925 million were underfed, according to the Red Cross”. This was the opening line of a Metro article last week, which spurred me and a friend into a discussion as to how on earth we’ve got into this state. In her view, “Its plain and simple, we’ve become greedy and lazy”. However, I’m not so sure and believe a more compassionate approach to this problem is justified and may even contribute in some way to its solution. 

It's only natural that we're drawn to fatty, sugary foods.

In England itself, we have obesity levels not far behind the Americans. 1 in 4 of our adults are obese and more than half of us are overweight. The Department of Health predicts that by 2050, 1 in 2 of us will be clinically obese. So what’s causing this epidemic?It’d argue its not greed or laziness, but rather the fact that we weren’t designed to live in this environment of abundant food. 

It’s natural to love “bad” food. For most of our human history, food was scarce. So to aid survival and motivate us to pursue foods rich in energy, our brains evolved to produce pleasure when ingesting high calories foods - the greater the sugar, the greater the fat, the better.   

In fact, to the brain eating Krispy Kreme donuts is similar to taking drugs, it is driven by our dopamine reward system. Each time we tuck into that remarkably moist doughy sponge, we experience a surge of dopamine. Now if we regularly experience these surges, the brain tries to normalise the dopamine levels by reducing the number of receptors that respond to dopamine. In turn, we start to crave even more dopamine-inducing substances, just to bring us back to normal and the addictive cycle begins. Our modern day environment, replete with opportunities to gorge on sweet, sticky substances, is evoking natural desires in us, but their unnatural abundance is leading us towards addiction with disastrous consequences. Researchers have found a similar depletion of dopamine receptors in obese people as to those hooked on cocaine or alcohol. Consequently, rather than taking a condemning attitude towards obesity, I suggest it is more appropriate to take a compassionate approach that acknowledges our design.

Furthermore, I suggest we extend this compassionate approach towards ourselves, as ironically this actually helps us curb our desires.  Let me explain. A lot of the time we eat for emotional reasons. We turn to our friends Ben and Jerry to relieve pain and stress. However, when we berate ourselves for turning to these foods, this further increases our stress, which then fuels more overeating.  Researchers from Forest Wake University, asked 84 women, many who were dieting, to eat a donut. Following the donut, they requested them to taste test a few sweets, then after the first few they were free to eat as many as they liked. One group was told to be compassionate towards themselves, for example the supervisor told them “Everyone in the study eats this stuff, so I don’t think there’s any reason to feel real bad about it.” While the other group wasn’t given any such instructions.

Remarkably, the women who were told to be compassionate towards themselves actually ended up eating significantly less sweets than the other group who were still berating themselves for eating the donut, which in turn, fuelled further eating.   

Mindfulness is one method that has been found to increase our levels of self-compassion, as we learn to be with our thoughts and emotions without judgment or criticism.  

So in conclusion, rather than taking a condemning attitude towards ourselves and others for our eating behaviours, I suggest a healthier approach is to adopt a mindful attitude of acceptance and compassion that acknowledges our design and reduces our tendencies towards self-criticism and the perpetuation of destructive cycles.

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