A Psychological Problem, Not a Nutritional Problem

A Matched Set

“Will Marriage Make You Fat?” is the question asked by Cynthia Ramnarace in an article that follows the histories of three different couples. She got interested in the emotional basis of obesity because of something she read:

A 2008 study in the journal Obesity showed that couples that lived together more than two years — whether married or not — were more likely to be obese, inactive and sedentary.

People tend to shape up for the wedding, so the pictures will look great, but then they often let go. Even couples who are not officially married tend to pack on the pounds. Apparently, couples do a lot of sitting around. And, getting used to living with somebody can be very stressful, for all kinds of mundane reasons. Stress leads to stress eating.

One thing not mentioned here is the tendency of couples to tolerate each other’s bad habits, which is, after all, an essential skill in a relationship. She doesn’t criticize him for drinking beer, and he doesn’t criticize her for eating ice cream bars. For many couples, food is an important part of their mutuality. They bring each other treats, and share them, and give each other permission to overindulge, and it’s okay because they’re doing it together.

For overweight and obese children, teenagers, and adults who struggle with food issues, most of the dynamic is the same. A lot of fat grownups were fat kids, and a lot of fat kids mature into fat grownups. In Overweight: What Kids Say, Dr. Pretlow mentions that a minority of obese kids are offended by the suggestion that their overeating originates in emotional emptiness or, conversely, that it stems from an overwhelming surfeit of emotion.

The majority of kids who share their experiences on the Weigh2Rock website are relieved to acknowledge that eating is a strategy to smother feelings of hurt, sadness, depression, anger, etc. Here are typical outspoken remarks:

Mary (15): My family is driving me crazy!! I am an emotional overeater, so when someone makes me mad… then I eat. …So, yeah I’m fat … I’m mad at my mom, and I want to eat.

Bryce (12): I feel really overweight. I wasn’t always it’s just I got really depressed when my mom and dad died and tried to eat away pain. .. I REALLY want help, I’m desperate.

But some just don’t want psychology to enter into it, and some adults are the same way. Nevertheless, Dr. Pretlow says,

Overweight and obesity in kids is a psychological problem, not a nutritional problem.

Yes, there are plenty of other factors. No, we should not let our kids feast on high-fructose corn syrup. Nevertheless, the roots are in the head. Over the years, I’ve collected things people have said to me about their weight. A college friend with a truly hefty physique said, “I like how I am, I feel grounded. I don’t know if I could take being thin. Thin people must always feel like the wind could blow them away.”

Another friend wrote, “We need touch, and the feel of flesh is always comforting. When you’re fat, no matter where you rest your arm, it contacts some part of you, and feels almost like another person. By letting extra body mass accumulate, we provide a companion for ourselves.” It’s always amazing how honest people can be sometimes. I was told this: “Eating isn’t just about flavor or any of that. After you chew and swallow, you can feel the stuff slide down along its path. It’s a kind of internal massage, it’s almost sexual.”

A high school girlfriend said, “I need the fat for an excuse to explain why I’m not popular. I don’t particularly want to look at the other reasons. It feels like there is some deep, horrible thing wrong with me, but discovering it would be too scary. Theoretically, I can always decide not to be fat, and bring it under control. But the deep scary thing is not under control.”

A man who had been routinely abused and molested in childhood has told me he had never even tried to have sex with anybody. He was afraid of what he might do. The protective layers of fat were his insurance policy against the temptation to get involved with anybody, because being fat was much easier to cope with.

Maybe some of these unhappy people could have benefited from having their problems looked at through the psychological food dependence-addiction lens. We’ll never know.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Will Marriage Make You Fat?,” ivillage, 07/07/10
Source: “Overweight: What Kids Say,” Amazon.com
Image by Tobyotter (Toby Alter), used under its Creative Commons license.

3 Responses

  1. When I look at my parents, I see the dynamic you describe, and it worries me. There is definitely an “indulgence” factor, and who wants to fight over an ice cream bar? Growing up, I learned all of my parents’ worst eating and exercise habits.

    But I wonder if we won’t start to see a countering trend in our youth when they move out and are employed.

    When I was 26 — living alone and employed — I decided that I didn’t want to live like that anymore, so I dedicated time and effort to fitness. I was still overweight and eating horribly, but I was getting into better shape. I kept at it. For me, marriage has so far helped because my wife taught me a lot about nutrition and diet. Perhaps I have been ready to learn because I don’t want to end up like my parents.

    Is there any evidence of the youth reacting against their overweight parents either before or after they move out?

    1. Interesting! Wouldn’t it be great if youthful rebellion took such a positive and healthful turn! This is really a ripe area for further research.

  2. I came by the thought from music. Usually, if there’s a lot of glossy production in music, there will be a punk resurgence shortly after. I’ve also heard people discuss social mores in this way.

    I’ve heard that McDonald’s has tried to alter their menu as a result of a movement like this, but I didn’t really look into it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

FAQs and Media Requests: Click here…

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Obesity top bottom

The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

Food & Health Resources