It seems so very Monty Python-esque: a new British study involving 6500 people has come to the conclusion that low-self esteem and emotional problems lead people to get fat. One can almost hear the director of that study, Dr. David Collier of King’s College, echoing Ms. Anne Elk in the Flying Circus, “This is my theory, it is mine, and it belongs to me, and I own it, and what it is, too.” Like Anne Elk’s theory that the brontosaurus is thin on top, fat in the middle, and thin at the other end — this latest study points to the obvious.
Dr. Collier and his research team tested his theory that emotional problems and weight are linked by collecting data on 6500 participants in the British Birth Cohort Study, which began back in 1970. At age 10, the participants were measured for height and weight, and they also completed self-esteem assessments. The scientists tracked the participants over the next 20 years, and sure enough, those with low self-esteem and emotional issues put on more weight over the next two decades than those who were emotionally stable. The researchers noted that subjects who felt less in control of their lives and who worried more were among the biggest weight gainers, with the correlation being stronger for women than men. But, Dr. Collier says, “This is not about people with deep psychological problems, all the anxiety and low self-esteem were within the normal range.”
The most surprising fact about the research is that anyone found the results surprising. But it seems that the research team did, in fact, believe they had stumbled upon something new — something thin on the ends and fat in the middle, dare I say. “What’s novel about this study is that obesity has been regarded as a medical metabolic disorder – what we’ve found is that emotional problems are a risk factor for obesity,” said Dr. Collier.
Perhaps Dr. Collier and his cohorts have been stuck in the lab for the past few decades while overwhelming numbers of overweight citizens bought books about emotional eating and tuned into talk shows on the subject. A quick trip to Amazon.com shows that typing in “Emotional Eating” brings up 2,803 titles. Type “emotional eating” into a Google search and you’ll pull up 2,970,000 references. Clearly, it’s hardly news that difficult emotions can lead to overeating, and it’s a no-brainer that overeating leads to weight gain.
At least the researchers gave a nod to the other factors that correlate with weight gain. “While we cannot say that childhood emotional problems cause obesity in later life, we can certainly say they play a role, along with factors such as parental BMI [body mass index], diet and exercise,” said co-director of the study Andrew Ternouth. Plus, Dr. Ternouth had advice to offer: “Strategies to promote social and emotional aspects of learning, including the promotion of self-esteem, are central to a number of recent policy initiatives. Our findings suggest that approaches of this kind may carry positive benefits for physical health as well as for other aspects of children’s development.”
Well, it may seem naïve and the money spent on the study may seem wasteful, but those preventative recommendations sure beat the pants of pharmaceutical and surgical approaches. On the other hand, promoting self-esteem doesn’t guarantee svelte waistlines, either. We’ve all known chubby bullies who feel terrific about themselves. In fact, experts on emotional eating, such as Dr. Roger Gould, author of Shrink Yourself, suggest that it isn’t the emotional problem, per se, that makes the person overeat — it’s that the person learns to use food to “stuff down” emotional difficulties, and that is learned behavior, at least in part.
The child observes the parent deal with problems by eating junk. The parent gives the child treats as rewards, or to shut the child up. The child watches commercials for junk food on television, seeing the actors smiling as they devour treats. The child discovers that by eating junk, he gets a temporary soothing sensation, using food as a drug. But the thing is, as the child keeps eating to stuff emotions, he suffers from the physiological and psychological effects of eating junk food. These effects can include emotional imbalance from the effects of sugar, low-self-esteem as weight piles on, mental fog, lack of energy and withdrawal from exercise. In other words, it’s a catch-22 — emotional problems lead to overeating, and overeating leads to emotional problems.
To interrupt the cycle, kids need emotional balance and nurturing, yes; but they also need to learn that overeating isn’t the answer. They need healthier foods, healthier coping mechanisms, and healthier routines, including getting enough exercise. After all, emotional problems and low self-esteem are hardly new phenomena. People in the 1950s had emotional problems, but most didn’t get fat. Now two-thirds of adults in the US are overweight — so clearly something has changed and you can bet it isn’t plummeting self-esteem. In fact, new studies show that kids today suffer from too much self-esteem — that the self-esteem movement in education that started in the 1980s led parents and teachers to overindulge kids, making them lazy and narcissistic. They think they’re great as they are.
The experts are right about one thing — early intervention is key. But they miss the mark in thinking more hugs and praise will help Johnny eschew the brownie when he feels blue. Johnny needs to learn other ways to deal with episodes of normal sadness (also known as life). Johnny needs to understand that when it comes to his body and his life, “They are his, and they belong to him, and he owns them, and what they are, too.”