Social Media vs. the Obesity Epidemic, Part 1

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Sometimes it seems like not much progress is being made, but when we look back a few months or a year, the retrospective view often makes the whole situation look better. Last May, Dr. Pretlow went to France for the 19th European Congress on Obesity, which Helping You Care reported on:

Dr. Robert Pretlow of the Research Institute, eHealth International in Seattle, Washington, presented evidence suggesting that social networking and new smart phone apps that help people overcome addiction-like cravings for ‘highly pleasurable foods’ are an effective tool to help people lose weight… Dr. Pretlow presented findings that social networks can be very effective in treating obesity, and he also presented a new smart phone app to help battle obesity.

As we know, Dr. Pretlow advocates an addiction medicine approach to obesity, because a large amount of it is the result of addiction to problem foods. This means that support groups like Overeaters Anonymous, Food Addicts Anonymous, and other 12-step-based programs are an appropriate response to food addiction, and so is inpatient rehabilitation, if available. Substance abuse is the name of the game, and people who want to stop playing it can find helping resources and make use of them.

Social networks, such as found online, can provide social support and encouragement, especially if anonymous. Problem foods can be identified and eliminated one by one, and binge eating and comfort eating can be overcome.

Anonymous social networking offers an escape from lonely isolation. Reporting back on progress can enhance self-esteem, which improves even more when the person is successful enough to become a mentor to others who are just starting on their journey.

There is a lot to be said for the accountability found even in an anonymous arrangement. With a “buddy” to report back to, the person knows that someone cares, and has more of an emotional investment in doing well. People can help each other solve problems, and there is enormous value just in knowing that one is not the only person ever afflicted by cravings or discouragement.

Chat rooms and bulletin boards let people report progress and blow off steam and escape the feeling of being alone in a hostile and problematic world. As Dr. Pretlow says:

Group support helps the obese person tolerate withdrawal from problem foods and adds motivation to keep going. Re-addiction is prevented by socially learning to cope with life without turning to food… While weight loss from social networking is not as much as face-to-face weight loss programs, social networking is much cheaper and much more widely available. It is also ongoing for weight maintenance and dealing with relapses.

There is a place for non-anonymous online social networking, such as Facebook and Twitter, although they are less useful. There is also a dark side to social networking, Dr. Pretlow also warns. Where obesity is concerned, social networking can also be a causative factor:

Obesity is frowned upon socially. Social rejection and isolation produces sadness and depression, which elicits ‘comfort eating,’ typically involving highly pleasurable food. The pleasure and distraction of eating eases emotional pain and depression — a form of self-medication. Some obese people even proclaim, ‘food is my best friend,’ thus replacing their social networking. This may become a vicious cycle with more weight gain, more rejection, more comfort eating, even lower self-esteem and more isolation, and so on.

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Smart Phone Apps & Social Networking Help Lose Weight, Evidence Suggests,” HelpingYouCare.com, 05/14/12
Image by daniel julia lundgren.

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