Emotional Eating: Is It Fair to Blame Our Weight Problems on a Lack of Self Control?

Emotional eating and lack of willpower: we believe factors like these lead to weight gain. But why? Why do we believe that self-control (or lack thereof) is so important to weight regulation?

What Influences the Size and Nature of Our Fat Tissue More?


A) Our minds?

B) Or a complex ensemble of hormones, enzymes, and other bio-active compounds that is totally outside our conscious control?

To answer the questions posed above, we must look hard at some of the fundamental assumptions most of us make about fat and calories. We've all been taught in school that "calories count." In other words, if we eat more calories than our bodies burn off via activity, we will store the excess calories on our bodies as fat. Thus, nearly all weight loss plans focus on calorie control. We fight our appetites. We force ourselves to get to the gym. And when diets break down, we blame things like emotional eating or a lack of willpower. We assume that the fundamental problem is in our mind. If only we can fix our brains -- be more mentally tough -- we can force ourselves to be thinner and healthier. If you watch TV shows like The Biggest Loser, this is the message that you'll get.

On the other hand, the eat-less-exercise-more strategy doesn't seem to be working very well for us. Over the past 30 years, we've seen an explosion of diet books, programs, pills, surgeries, and so forth. We've also seen something of an exercise craze sweep the nation. But despite these efforts, we keep getting fatter and fatter and fatter.

There is an alternative hypothesis about obesity that has nothing to do with emotional eating or willpower. It says that the problem is located not in our brains but in our fat tissue itself. When our fat tissue gets "too big," our appetites will spike and our metabolism will drop. When our fat tissue is restored to a balanced level, our appetites will drop, and our metabolism will kick up. The controlling factor is not calories; it's whatever regulates the fat tissue itself.

To read more about these competing theories, click on the links below:

1. The argument that obesity must arise from a behavioral defect -- i.e. that everyone who is overweight must either be lazy or gluttonous or both, and that therefore things like emotional eating make us fat -- is absurd on its face.

2. Evidence abounds that physiological mechanisms, not psychological ones, regulate our fat tissue.

3. Behavioral theories to explain obesity cannot account for why obesity associates with disease.

4. As Gary Taubes has pointed out, we explain vertical growth (i.e. "getting taller") as resulting from hormonal factors and driven by physiology; whereas we explain horizontal growth (i.e. "getting fatter") as resulting from gluttony and sloth.

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