When is the last time you were at an event that did not involve food? Perhaps it was a Monday morning committee meeting or church activity on Thursday night. Because food is such a prevalent part of our culture and it’s rare to have any kind of event where food is not served, it’s no surprise that this has become a problem – and even an addiction – for many people. And what makes it more of a challenge is that it’s an acceptable addiction. If someone has four pieces of pizza at lunch, it’s something people might laugh at or relate to but if somebody has four shots of alcohol during the day, it’s not so funny anymore. So food is the acceptable addiction. In Weight, Diet and Body Image, Edward Abramson addresses this problem in our culture.
There are obviously a number of negative consequences for people with weight challenges including depression, lowered self-esteem, and avoiding physical activity which is why this is also a mental health problem. But weight loss is unfortunately not as simple as eating less and exercising more. As Abramson notes, it is a “complex interaction of many genetic, physiological, and environmental variables”. Understanding that it is a complex issue can help reduce the stigma many clients feel.
Our culture and environment play a significant role in this problem. We have the data on how portion sizes have increased over the years and see that our norm is just eating more than we used to. We also respond to food in a way that’s not the healthiest because of environmental cues. For example, even though you have a full meal at dinner, you will often find that you have an appetite when dessert is presented to you. Your appetite is revived when a new food is presented so the number of choices we have in our culture does not seem to be such a great thing after all.
Let’s look at physical hunger. We make “200 or more eating decisions a day” and we are also on the go. We don’t necessarily sit down to enjoy a leisurely meal anymore. Instead they scarf something down over their lunch break. This is a problem because “it takes about 20 minutes before their hunger will start to be satisfied so, if they’re very hungry, when they finally do eat, they’ll eat rapidly and consume more than they need before they feel satisfied”. The problem is not just physical. We respond to such as going to the vending machine at work at 3 pm whether or not we’re actually physically hungry.
Vending machines are also part of the problem because of our “see-food” diet. Whether it’s a trip to the vending machine, walking past a desk with a candy dish, viewing a magazine ad, or the smell of something freshly baked, we decide to eat. And often we fool ourselves into thinking something is healthy because the label says it’s healthy. We also multitask – eating and working – so we don’t pay attention to what we eat. And the truth is we all have a finite amount of willpower. As we use it throughout the day, our willpower begins to decrease which is when the binge can happen.
Emotional eating is also a common cause of unhealthy habits. “Emotional eating is defined as eating in response to unpleasant emotional arousal or to enhance an already pleasant emotional state”. So we have all these external cues that impact eating and when added to our emotional state, we turn to food for comfort or a break from boredom. Emotional eating can also occur in conjunction with anxiety or depression. When addressing this with clients, it’s important that they know “the goal isn’t to make judgements but rather to gather data on eating habits”.
And let’s not forget relationship challenges. “The implicit assumption is that food choice and eating habits occur in a vacuum; the person just decides to eat or not to eat.” There could be messages from a person’s past where food is used as a message of love and they still apply it today. It can also have to do with the company we keep. We may follow have unhealthy habits if the people around us have bad habits.
Weight diet and body image will likely be part of the treatment process for any client. However, with the stages of change, not all clients will be ready to make significant change. Treatment providers need to ask if a client is going through a major life decision, has a substance abuse problem, and is ready to become more active. In other words, how ready and capable of making a change? Abramson highlights treatment options such as CBT or ACT without going into detail about those treatment
I do agree with the book’s description that it is a, comprehensive guide to diet and body image issues. It is, however, very introductory. The experienced clinician who already has awareness of negative food patterns, although not necessarily eating disorders, would probably be aware of the issues presented in here. People with self-awareness who have dieted on and off over the years would likely already know about the issues presented in this book.
Where I do think this book would be a good fit is in an introductory psychology class. I think for anyone who is studying to work in a profession where they are going to be addressing mental health concerns, this is a good overview for an understanding of this area even though it may not be their core treatment here. Now that two-thirds of adults are either overweight or obese, this is a problem mental health providers cannot ignore. And at 132 pages, Weight, Diet and Body Image a very easy read. It also can be a nice reference for people who do have some self-awareness. They can get a better understanding of some of the emotional components of their eating behavior and work through the guide in conjunction with a therapist.
Weight, Diet and Body Image
Edward Abramson, PhD
PESI Publishing & Media
Softcover, 132 pages