Weight loss – it’s complex, so DON’T JUDGE

January 6, 2010 at 10:28 am Leave a comment

It is so easy to judge others when you just look at the situation from the outside and don’t know the underlying factors involved.  I think of the old “walk a mile in my shoes” song by Elivs Presley:

Walk a mile in my shoes
just walk a mile in my shoes
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Then walk a mile in my shoes

The Weighing it up: Obesity in Australia report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health and Ageing reported that overweight and obese people can be perceived as “lazy, bad, weak, stupid and lacking in self-discipline”.  One witness told the Committee of her ‘overwhelming sense of shame and hurt’ at the remarks passed by strangers, friends and work colleagues about her weight.

A small, seemingly insignificant energy imbalance results in weight gain over time. In their submission, the Department of Health and Ageing (DoHA) told the Committee that over the past 20 years the average weight of Australian adults has increased by 0.5-1kg. This gain is caused by a daily extra energy intake of as little as 100 kcal, equivalent to one slice of bread, a soft drink or 30 minutes of sitting instead of brisk walking.

There are a number of factors that influence the ability of individuals to control their body weight. These include:
biological reasons;

  • the obesogenic environment;
  • psychological factors;
  • socio-economic levels; and
  • knowledge/education.

BIOLOGICAL REASONS:  The body is designed to store fat as an energy reserve for lean times – a feature we developed during the thousands of years when a regular meal could not be guaranteed. It explains why weight is relatively easy to put on – but hard to get off.  A related biological factor that influences a person’s ability to lose weight is the body’s homeostatic regulation. When we change our dietary or activity habits, the body may react to maintain or increase its current weight by adjusting the basal metabolism. (Our basal metabolism is the amount of energy we use to maintain our bodily functions, like breathing, when we are at rest.) This response is linked to our survival mechanisms, allowing the body to protect itself from starvation. If you eat less, your body will use less energy. If you exercise more, your body will stimulate your appetite so that you eat more.  The body can really fight to maintain its weight making big changes to the basic metabolism that you cannot consciously control.

THE OBSOGENIC ENVIRONMENT:  Societal changes have created an environment where we are time poor, rely on cars, walk less and have increased access to convenience foods. Maintaining healthy weight has ceased to be a by-product of everyday life, and instead has become a personal project requiring constant vigilance and resistance to widespread cultural and social patterns.

PSYCHOLOGICAL FACTORS:  People suffering from anxiety, depression and low self-esteem will find it very difficult to make the behavioural change necessary to alter their eating and exercise habits. Psychological factors and obesity often operate in a cyclical fashion so that someone who is overweight becomes depressed, or someone who is depressed puts on weight.  It can be difficult to distinguish which is the root cause.   The emphasis on body image in our society exacerbates the mental and emotional problems associated with being overweight. Many individuals spoke of denying their condition while at the same time being ashamed of their body image. One witness told the Committee she had been able to ignore her body image while she was obese but, once she took control and began to successfully lose weight, she was overly focused on it, worrying about how much she had lost each week.  “You look at yourself and you think, ‘How can I have gotten like this?’ I think it becomes a much bigger issue than people realise. Psychological support is crucial.”

SOCIO-ECONOMIC LEVELS:  There is a direct link between lower socio-economic status and obesity.  People in lower socio-economic groups may not be able to afford to buy good quality food and do not have easy access to recreational activities.

KNOWLEDGE/EDUCATION:  Individuals need assistance to negotiate the abundance of information, some of which is conflicting.  The confusion over food choice is compounded by the loss of basic food skills such as cooking. Evidence suggests that cooking is no longer learnt in the home and is not taught in schools, so people are unsure how to prepare nutritious meals. Food is often marketed to us on the basis of convenience of preparation rather than true nutritional value.

PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY

Throughout the course of the inquiry, the Committee repeatedly heard that ultimately individuals must take responsibility for their own health, including their weight. Obesity is caused by an imbalance in energy intake (from diet) and expenditure (from activity). Individually we make the decisions as to how much we eat and how much activity we undertake.

While putting weight on can happen gradually over time without us noticing, getting it off usually requires concerted effort.  So don’t judge others. We haven’t “walked a mile in their shoes”.  We don’t know the complex interaction of factors that may be affecting their ability to achieve health and wellness.

Let me encourage you:  Don’t give up when change proves difficult and results do not come quickly enough.  The end result is worth the effort.  Continue with your quest to be the best that you can be.

Sections of this article have been taken from the report Weighing it up: Obesity in Australia.   The full report can be found at http://www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/haa/obesity/report.htm

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