Eating Ourselves To Death

Some Shocking Observations:

Despite the fact that I read many articles about the fact that obesity is a major health problem in the United States today I was both shocked and worried by what I witnessed on a vacation cruise to the Caribbean that both my wife and I recently took. What I found to be shocking was the sheer number of people on the ship who were not just over weight but were clearly morbidly obese. Among the population of the ship, which numbered three thousand guests were men, women, young, middle aged and elderly people. Food was in great abundance during the cruise with the ability of any and all to choose all the food they wished to eat with no limits. Each day ice cream was available and that drew amazing numbers of people. There were plentiful deserts and endless calories. Mixed among the obese were large numbers of people who were clearly over weight. Yet, the health spa and track went unused and the swimming pools, among which were four, one of which was for adult swimming, were filled with children and adults who stood around and got no real exercise. I guess that is not true of the children who jumped, splashed and did what children do.

As if to punctuate the reality of what was so obvious on board ship, someone died of a heart attack towards the end of the week. I am not suggesting that this death was, in anyway, the fault of the ship or its company. I have no way of knowing the state of health of the unfortunate individual who suddenly died but it seems a fair guess that it was someone who was over weight, in poor health and had probably been warned before. In fact, I do not even know if it was the first heart attack suffered by the person. It just seems as though it was more than a coincidence.

The health consequences of over eating and obesity:

We now know beyond the shadow of a doubt that excess weight leads to serious and deadly health consequences. For example, over eating leads directly to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke. While there is no clear cut proof there are constant hints in the published studies that excess weight may be implicated in certain types of cancer such as breast and colon cancer.

It is also true that recent research implies that excess weight can be compensated for if an individual is energetic and athletic. In other words, exertion in the form of aerobic exercise can make up for a lot of sins. The problem is that many people who are heavy and most of those who are obese do not exercise and do not maintain good physical health.

When smoking is added to the formula of obesity and lack of exercise, the results are almost always devastating. The health threat represented by smoking is now clearly proven. Smoking leads directly to lung and other types of cancer. It also puts undo stress on the heart and, combined with obesity and lack of exercise leads to early death.

What is even worse about all of this is the simple fact that there are some things worse than death. I have seen what some unfortunate victims of stroke look like. This experience comes from my early days of working on medical surgery and neurological wards in some big hospitals. I have seen victims of stroke left as complete vegetables that are not brain dead but are alive inside of a completely paralyzed body. High fat diets clog the arteries and the resulting blockage of these arteries allows for the buildup of blood clots that break of from the wall of the arteries and flow with the blood stream up to the brain where terrible damage results.

Why is this happening? Why are Americans eating themselves to death?

Beyond the obvious need for nutrition to sustain life and health, food represents far more to human beings than the obvious. Food represents:

  • Nurturance
  • Love
  • Relief of tension
  • Comfort
  • Success
  • Power
  • Wealth
  • Plenty
  • Fruitfulness

In many cultural and religious traditions, the death of a kinsman is celebrated with food. It is a common practice of many cultures to celebrate the life of the person who has died by serving large amounts of food after the funeral. It is a way for friends and neighbors to begin the mourning period and to celebrate continued life at the very same time by eating together.

Weddings, births, holidays and many other celebrations have large parties that include food and drink.

Nations ratify treaties with large dinners at which the major signatories dine together to mark the occasion of the signing of the treaty.

Power and wealth are indicated by such things as the types of dishes people use and the types and varieties of foods served at special occasions.

Oral gratification is a powerful drive from the moment of birth. Suckling at the breast is the way for human babies to derive not only food for survival but love, warmth and comfort. A baby that cries because it is hungry is quickly comforted with the breast after which it falls off to blissful sleep that allows for further growth and development. When you think about the fact that people can learn to live without alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and many other substances but cannot live without food and water, its power becomes obvious. As I heard one frustrated traveler moaning about at the airport while waiting for his luggage to arrive, "I had plans to arrive home in time for the World Series on television, take out a couple of cold beers and enjoy the game." This was not a man who was over weight. Rather, it's an example of how powerful oral gratification is. He wanted to watch the World Series drinking a beer. Many other people watch baseball and football games with their neighbors and friends while drinking beer and eating pizza and frankfurters. For many of these people the weekend ritual includes smoking cigarettes and cigars.

Food as addiction:

There have been recent studies that clearly demonstrate the fact that job stress leads to obesity because people over eat as a way to derive comfort from the experienced stress. How is it that eating large amounts of food creates a feeling of relief from stress? We know from those who suffer from bulimia nervosa that binging on food allows for the flow of dopamine in the trillions of spaces between the brain cells. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that creates feelings of pleasure. It is one of the brain chemicals involved in many of the drug addictions that afflict so many people. In other words over eating and binge eating come to feel pleasurable in a way that the individual feels a need to repeat as soon as possible. Over eating leads to the need to over eat even more. Many of those who become obese come to feel depressed because of the way they look and feel and turn to more eating in an effort to relieve the depression. Clearly, a vicious cycle results that leaves the person feeling trapped and helpless.

Are there solutions to the problem of obesity?

One of the most radical steps that some people take to end their obesity is to under go surgery that reduces their stomach size and alters how they will eat forever after. However, not everyone is suited for this type of surgery and the results are not always what the patient may have sought after.

Another step that some people take is to join a twelve step program modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous and it is called Over Eaters Anonymous or OA.

There are a variety of other weight control programs. The most famous of them is Weight Watchers, a program which has enjoyed success for many people who report they were satisfied with the results.

There have been many attempts at medications to help people lose weight but, in the end all of them proved to be more dangerous to health than helpful.

These solutions and others are discussed extensively in our Weight Loss topic center, which you may be interested in reading.

A cautionary note:

Extreme dieting has been proven to lead to more weight problems. Self starvation and fasting ultimately cause the individual to regain what weight was lost and then even more. The idea is to avoid any type of program that relies upon starvation of any type. Weight can only be lost gradually and with life style changes rather than radical diets. Do not pay attention to fad diets and, instead, look to healthy ways of eating.

Life Style changes:

In order to lose weight and maintain a healthy life style several changes need to be made:

The best suggestion for anyone needing to lose weight is to consult their physician about a program of health diet (e.g., a nutritious diet such as is described in our Nutrition topic center) and a program of exercise that will fit within their particular health needs. It is never a good idea to start an exercise program without getting medical clearance. It is important to have a realistic exercise program. Too many people over exercise in the initial stages start to hurt and become quickly discouraged. In addition, a program of good nutrition carries with it a gradual loss in weight and a permanent change in eating habits rather than a temporary diet.

Really, the goal for everyone should be to change the way they live in order that they feel fit and healthy rather than have a short term goal of losing weight. What is truly involved is a type of exercise and eating program that is permanent, healthy and fun.

One option, in addition to consulting with your physician, is to get a referral to a licensed nutritionist who is expert at dealing with all of the eating disorders.

Your comments are welcome and encouraged