Origins of Obesity — What’s True and What’s Not

March 25th, 2013

A wonderful article on origins of obesity from one of my favorite authors and colleague, Meryl Beck. I know you’ll enjoy it. These are principles that can be applied to any kind of eating disorder!

Dear Jeannie,

Recently, my weekly articles have been focusing on personal energy and instant energizers. Today’s article, however, is steering away from that and taking a different course: A Facebook friend recently quoted Dr. Christiane Northrup, and her thought-provoking words have stimulated a lot of discussion. She said, “Obesity is a solution to chronic stress,” and many folks have argued that obesity is an indication of stress, not a solution. I decided to investigate the statement!

With my background as a counselor, I am well aware that the extra layers of fat are often used as insulation, sexual protection, physical protection and even social protection so others might expect less from you.

I also believe that the basic problem is not the overeating. What is causing it? It’s that saying, “It’s not what you’re eating, it’s what’s eating you.” Many folks overeat/binge in an attempt to manage their pain and stress. In fact, I’ve often said that, “Food was the glue that kept me together.”

The resulting obesity, therefore, is also not the problem, but rather an indication that something challenging has happened or is happening to the individual.

Since my curiosity was piqued, I looked into the origin of the Dr. Northrup quote and discovered an interesting discussion in Hungry for Change. I found it so intriguing that I am sharing some of it with you here:

In 1992, Vincent Felitti, M.D., head of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, noticed a number of his patients dropping out of the Kaiser’s obesity program. The patients, Felitti noticed, didn’t quit because they couldn’t lose weight. What was going on? Why were his patients dropping out? To answer these questions, Felitti conducted a research project. Through his study—popularly known as the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study—Felitti discovered that a high proportion of the dropouts had histories of childhood abuse or neglect. These childhood experiences, he concluded, continued to affect his patients’ health and well-being, even if the experiences had occurred more than 50 years earlier.

“What he concluded,” says Christiane Northrup, M.D., “is that obesity is not the problem. It’s a solution. It’s a solution to chronic stress. It’s a solution in many people to sexual abuse, to dysfunctional family situations, and other personal traumas.”

The chapter continues on, discussing emotional eating, and offers:

Once we understand that sudden weight gain is often the result of the body’s protection mechanism, we can start to deactivate this mechanism by addressing specific stresses in our lives….

When you’re under stress, your body produces stress hormones called cortisol and epinephrine. I used to joke that I’d gain weight just looking at a sweet dessert, and it wasn’t so far-fetched after all. Dr. Northrup explained, “When your stress cortisol hormone levels are high enough, they’ve documented that looking at a doughnut actually changes your metabolism.”

“Stress also increases fluid retention,” Dr. Northrup continues. “I call these liquid pounds. If you’re under stress and you sleep for only three to four hours a night, you will gain two pounds just from that. You want to take care of those liquid pounds before they turn into real pounds, which they inevitably will.”

Dr. Northrup believes that the best ways to decrease stress hormones are 1) Getting a good night’s sleep – this will break down excess cortisol and epinephrine better than anything else. 2) Exercise — a walk three or four times a week is all it takes. 3) Laughter — decreases these hormones.

She concluded by saying that anything that is sustainably pleasurable will decrease stress hormones.

Information taken from: Colquhoun, J., ten Bosch, L., & Hyman, M., Hungry for Change (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 67-70.

Some immediate implications:

For those of us of normal weight: Now that we understand that obesity is often a solution to chronic stress, isn’t it time to be more compassionate with obese folks?

For those of us carrying excess weight: Isn’t it time to be more compassionate to ourselves? And isn’t it time to heal the traumas from the past?

If you want to stop emotional eating, please check out my book, Stop Eating Your Heart Out: The 21-Day Program to Free Yourself from Emotional Eating. I wrote it because I suffered from binge eating disorder and, over 30 years ago, began to explore tools and techniques to help me recover. I share my recovery methods so that other emotional eaters can also end the misery and self-recrimination around their eating.

Stop Eating Your Heart Out will help individuals who currently have or once had major stress in their lives and turned to food.


Meryl Beck
Author: Stop Eating Your Heart Out

2 Responses to “Origins of Obesity — What’s True and What’s Not”

  1. tara says:

    My friend is 10 years old.
    She is getting bigger and bigger and bigger.
    Everyone of her peers tease her and tount her. No one is helping and her mother is desperate to get her help. She is sverely depressed.

  2. jrust says:


    I am so sorry about your friend! Not only is she feeling the misery of being overweight but the teasing is really bullying and that might be the worst of all. Can you start out by talking to your school counselor? See if the counselor can find out what’s going on — because something is! No one just gets bigger and bigger without some kind of underlying cause. I must say that your friend is so lucky to have you. It would be wonderful if you could talk to your teacher and mention the bullying. The teach can talk to the class about being mean to other people.

    Let me know how it all goes!

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