Monday, April 7, 2008

Are We the Fattest People on Earth?

Modern Maturity Magazine reported years ago, “With the exception of the population of a few Pacific islands, Americans are the fattest people on earth.” Why are so many of us overweight? Why are so many of us prone to eating to excess? Why are we, as a culture, obsessed with food and body size? Why have so many of us alternated between eating compulsively for periods of time and then dieting for a while? Why has this become a common, life-long style of food management for so many? Why have millions of women and men become entangled in a pattern which is so self-destructive and that can lead to obesity, high blood pressure, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, a general sense of being out of control as well as a host of many other problems? We are all different, of course, and some people have not experienced such a struggle. Most of us, however, eat more than we want or need to at times, and, for some of us, compulsive eating has become a life-style. Why do so many of us do this and what can we do about it?

As a New Hampshire Licensed Psychologist and a Doctor of Holistic Health, I have studied this issue and specialized in working with people with food control concerns for over twenty years. I write from both my personal and professional points of view, after having waged my own private war with compulsive eating and dieting – enduring phases of obesity, bulimia and anorexia. I have finally found a path to a healthier life with a more positive, balanced and appreciative attitude towards myself, my own body and food. My body is not and will never be “perfect” according to our contemporary societal standard and I will never negotiate my path “perfectly.” However, after more than sixty years of walking around on this planet alternately starving and stuffing myself, the idea of perfection has become irrelevant. It has been replaced instead by a feeling of peace and an appreciation of myself and of the many wonderful things my body can do.

My perspective about compulsive eating behavior and my philosophy of treatment is this: Our physical bodies and our emotional and spiritual selves are intertwined and we have been heavily influenced in our society to look and act in certain ways to be accepted and approved of. So, to feel in control of our impulses to eat compulsively, we need to address all of these areas and map out strategies to bring each of these aspects of ourselves into balance. This requires us to know ourselves physically, emotionally and spiritually and to understand the impact social and environmental forces have had on us throughout our lives. This is no small task but it is possible and worthwhile.

The focus must not be on being thin. It must be on loving yourself just the way you are and eating in ways that feel nurturing – not compulsive and self-abusive. My wish is that you feel healthy, peaceful and happy with yourself regardless of how many pounds you weigh. I have spent countless hours in my role as a therapist listening to my clients’ painful histories and experiences and helping them in their personal struggles to control their eating. People have come to share their stories of guilt, self-hatred, shame and frustration. In their pasts, some have lost weight, some have not. Some have developed an ability to accept themselves no matter what their weight may be, and others have abandoned hope, finding the battle against compulsive eating too demanding and discouraging.

This is easy to understand. We are bombarded daily with confusing messages about what to do, what to eat (or not eat) and how to look and act. The problem can easily become overwhelming! Many of us have tried an assortment of fad diets, weight loss gimmicks, pills that claim to melt pounds away and exercise machines that promise thinner thighs and disappearing bellies in an impossibly short time and with little effort. These attempts to control our bodies and to mold them into shapes idealized today generally end in failure, cause great anxiety and the urges to overeat become more persistent than ever.

Strive to understand your food control issues physically, emotionally, socially, environmentally and spiritually. Each of us must explore this frustrating issue in our own way. Be patient with yourself (There are no mistakes, only lessons!). Nurture your physical body, attend to your spiritual practice, look for the humor in situations and allow yourself to name and express fully whatever emotions you are experiencing. Surround yourself with positive people who will offer support and encouragement and you will notice your focus gradually shifting from outside of yourself to inside. You will free yourself from others’ expectations and start really considering yourself and your own needs. And, above all, be gentle with yourself. You are just as important as any other being on this planet and you deserve to give yourself all good things.

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