Alarming appetite

Recently I read an article about a Famous Celebrity Couple and their life together. The text implied that their energy in their chosen fields is because The Wife makes health a priority. The Husband says, “I’m quite sure that if it weren’t for (The Wife), I’d probably weigh 300 pounds by now.”

I had also recently read comments from a couple of folks I know in the weight-neutral, non-diet field about being accused of “promoting obesity” or “glorifying obesity.” This is not an uncommon experience. This accusation is usually made with a considerable amount of emotional energy. The concept of weight neutrality encompasses body positivity, anti-diet, Health At Every Size® and, among other things, the radical notion that people deserve to be treated with respect regardless of body size. This seemingly compassionate notion, which is grounded in science, should come as a relief for hungry people, who spend their every waking moment monitoring each morsel and depriving themselves of the pleasure of food.  Instead it is often met with terror of unfettered weight gain.

Is there a connection here? I think so. The diet culture in which we live frames weight gain as something not only dreadful but inevitable without relentless vigilance. This results in habitual eating restraint in people of all sizes. We know, from science, that routinely eating even a little bit less than enough to satisfy hunger can lead to preoccupation with food and increased awareness of anything edible in the environment. Forcing body weight even a little bit lower than the natural set point results in an increase in appetite.

When I use the word “appetite” here, I refer to something larger than ordinary “Is it time for lunch yet?” hunger. I’m thinking of the overwhelming physiological drive to eat that results from ongoing restriction and which requires sustained, reliable intake to alleviate. We know from our work with eating disorder treatment that continued eating restraint and suppression of body weight result in a sense of hunger and appetite that feels enormous, terrifying and dangerous. There is sense that “If I start eating, I won’t be able to stop.” We also know, ironically, that restoring adequate, dependable nutrition is essential to calm this fear of the physiological drive to eat.

Diet culture is much more influential than most people realize, or want to admit. If a majority of folks believe that unremitting restriction is the only thing that keeps them from being overwhelmed by their appetite, then they will believe that any relaxing of restraint will result in out of control eating and endless weight gain. And so the cycle continues, and the industry thrives. Yet, for most of human history, people have eaten when hungry and stopped when full (when adequate food was available) without huge fluctuations in weight and without conscious concern of “too much.”

This terror of dreaded hunger is projected onto others as well. It becomes impossible to imagine that eating and weight could normalize without dramatic changes. The obvious conclusion is that everybody else is deliberately limiting their intake, too, because unrestricted eating would certainly result in never-ending, unstoppable weight gain for everyone, everywhere. Hunger must be disciplined. By this logic, any suggestion to give up dieting/restricting is “encouraging obesity.”

Diet culture makes money by telling us that our bodies cannot be trusted to regulate themselves, even though science and history tell us that they can. I think it is profoundly sad that so many people are depriving themselves of the enjoyment of eating, and then projecting their hunger and fear on those of us who say something different.

*with thanks to Angela Meadows, for suggestions and edits