Being Mindful of the Fat Labels We Assign to Ourselves

Words are so very powerful. Just read Orwell’s 1984 for a chilling glimpse of a world so intensely controlled by propaganda, it’s possible to commit a “thoughtcrime.” How powerful are words in your life? Think for a moment about the fat labels you might apply to yourself. Do you call yourself a food addict? Do you say that you have an eating disorder or that your eating is “disordered”?

We tend to use these terms rather casually. A lot of very overweight people refer to themselves as “food addicts.” Fat labels like these are reinforced by our culture. But think carefully about what being an addict really means. That’s a pretty loaded term! Are you truly out of control and obsessed with food?

On his website HealthHabits, ca, my colleague Doug Robb posted about a study that looked at dopamine response that triggered food cravings. Read his post here. Doug uses the term “addiction” because he believes it helps his clients take this very seriously but let’s consider what the study—and use of the word “addict”—can really mean.

As always, I will use myself as an example. Yes, it’s anecdotal but I know that lots of you out there are going to relate! The study found that some people have a heightened dopamine response to food stimuli. I know for myself that I can see a TV commercial, walk past a storefront, or even see an ad online and BAM! a food craving can take up residence in my brain! If I struggle with that craving, am I weak-willed? Am I desperate to relieve the pain of a past trauma? Are my emotions driving me to compulsive behavior? Here’s the key factor. When this happens to you, do you find that you are focused on one very specific food? If you attempt to stuff yourself with an “allowed” food, does the craving continue to taunt you? Oh man, I could chomp down rice cakes until I choke and a full-blown food craving will still pound away at the walls of my skull!

I have learned that to fight a strong food craving in my head, I have to do something that shifts my thinking in a very focused way. I generally stop what I am doing and, as much as is practical, I try to do something else, ideally something that involves physical effort so that my brain is forced to get all cylinders operating on some other task. The “mind tricks” you often see recommended are just silly and usually leave you thinking about the food even more!

Humans exist in such a vast range of experience! There are people who are literally impervious to cravings triggered by various forms of food stimuli! Food is not much of a priority for some folks and that’s just the way they are. But our culture does not judge them and often, they are held up as paragons of good judgment, deserving of emulation. For doing what’s natural for them? Yes! Fat people, on the other hand? It’s readily assumed there’s “something wrong” with us!

Our culture is struggling with the obesity epidemic, in part because we are refusing to let go of destructive paradigms that project shame, blame, and weakness on fat people. When we assign fat labels to ourselves, we often become who we tell ourselves we are or who our culture tells us we are. Was I a food addict when I weighed 340lbs? I will never allow myself to be labeled in that way. I have a brain that loves to think about food. It’s what’s natural for me. It’s inconvenient and a bit unfortunate but it’s who I am. I’m not going to say that means I’m “broken.” It does mean that if I want to control my weight, I’m going to have to work with what is the truth for my body and my brain, a very tough thing to do in the 24-hour non-stop food theme park and engineered food arcade we call America.


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    • JoAnn on September 6, 2013 at 4:59 pm

    Working with your own truth is a major paradigm shift and one that most people will not engage in. We spend an awful lot of time telling ourselves (and being told) that we are somehow weak, undisciplined, unfocused, lazy, stupid and a whole host of negatives. I don’t get blamed for have poor eyesight, but I do recognize it as a problem that needs correcting so I wear contacts. Same for my weight. I just wish it hadn’t taken so long to figure out the corrective action.

    As for a real and true craving, the kind that simply won’t leave my brain, sometimes it works a whole lot better and is a whole lot less painful, to have a small controlled portion than 20 supposedly healthy substitutes that don’t fit the bill. It also spares me beating myself up for going horribly off the rails. Of course, it’s not always immediately apparent that it’s a true craving instead of a passing fancy. Still working on making those distinctions.

    1. Hi JoAnn—

      I think some people are so overwhelmed by the shame our culture projects upon them that they are desperate to find something that seems like a sympathetic excuse. All of this talk of broken-ness and addiction makes people feel like horrible failures and heightens the shame. I don’t think it accomplishes anything and in fact makes it more difficult for people to bring a sense of control into their lives.

      I can’t do the moderation thing! I can’t manage “just a taste” it’s too dangerous for me! And that’s OK, I’ve figured it out and I work with it! I have to work hard to get these cravings to pass me by and I’m OK if I can make it to the next day!

    • Taunia on September 7, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    I love this post – especially because for years I labeled myself as a food addict. I don’t think I’m a food addict, but I do think I was obsessive about food and weight as a complete package.

    I often talk about how my husband made me ditch the scale this past year when we moved in together. The thought of it threw me into a panic, because how could I CONTROL MY FOOD OBESSSIONS AND WEIGHT WITHOUT IT?

    Now at 156 – the lowest I’ve been in a LONG time, I eat what I want – when I want. Overall, I eat pretty healthy – tons of salads and whole foods. Do I have cravings? Sure. And when I do – I have what I want, but generally a few bites satisfies me. I just no longer obsess about food because I eat what I want.

    Somehow, when I let go of the “obesssion” about food and the scale, everything normalized for me. And I LOVE that I feel normal and in control.

    1. DEEEEEEEVS! Thanks for stopping by! You describe an interesting scenario! I contend that all the focus people put on trying to continue to enjoy eating and figuring out what they can eat makes food the focus! But you’ve made it to a place that’s very difficult for so many people to reach, myself included—to have other priorities in your life and demote food to a lower role. Can you make it an ordinary part of your life, when you don’t care much about what you eat or don’t eat; it’s an amazing liberation if you can get there!

      You had a great advantage this year. Getting married and moving cross-country will sure introduce the kind of disruption that can really put you on a new path! It sounds like it’s working for you in a big way!

      Be sure you read the post I’ve linked here

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