Obesity rates in India are rising rapidly, with almost five per cent of the population being detected as overweight or obese. The world health organization (WHO) now considers obesity to be global epidemic. Yet few efforts are being made to counteract the commercial and cultural pressures that are producing millions of overweight people. Much research has been conducted around these issues, putting it down to genetic influences (Indians being predisposed to weight gain, for example) or lifestyle. But if we dig deeper, is it only extra money in the pocket that causes a person to eat another burger or to be tempted by a TV advert to buy a packet of chips?

Effect or cause? It is well-known that obesity can trigger feelings of low self-esteem. Poor stamina and ungainly physical appearance often invite cruel comments from the world. But the convert is also the true – feelings of low self-esteem can prompt overeating that can trigger/worsen obesity. Most dieticians and doctors focus on the diet-exercise regimen and provide emotional support for the feelings of depression associated with being ‘fat’. But they rarely take into account that obesity may have been caused by low self-esteem. Perhaps this is why so many diets fail, and the relapse rates of obesity are possibly higher than those of alcohol addiction. Low self-esteem can ruin a person’s life, and hundreds of people every year become obese because of low self-esteem.

The Mental Make-Up

Self-esteem plays a big part in how healthy someone is. Children who have been brought up by balanced parents who provide both love and discipline in equal measure, grow up with fewer health complaints. On the other hand, kids who face either neglect or abuse land up with problems. Being harshly criticized as a child or physically punished are triggers for overeating. Most children turn to food to make up for the lack of love. Another trigger is high expectations, competition and the pressure to excel, all of which can trigger emotional overeating. Other reasons for emotional overeating include loss of a parent, financial constraints, peer pressure, overbearing relatives or sibling rivalry.

Childhood triggers are plenty, and they show up in adulthood in insidious ways. Aarti (name changed to protect identity), a 32-year-old divorcee, weighed 120 kg, had diabetes and was in denial about her problems. Several failed diets and slimming-Centre visits later, her weight remained unchanged. Her doctor finally advised counseling. While Aarti put down her obesity to being a chubby child, many sessions later the truth emerged. Her father was an abusive alcoholic and her mother was constantly depressed. She had been force-feeding Aarti through most of her childhood. Growing up overweight, Aarti became the ‘class clown’, as a way to cope with others’ hurtful comments. In her teen years, she went thought a string of broken relationships. Her marriage failed, she now realises, because of her low self-esteem. She was never serious about anything, not even the relationship, and turned to food after every fight. “Worse still, my husband gained 15 kg in the two years of our marriage because I thought food would comfort him too,” she says.

Emotional trauma experienced at an early age gets ‘stored’ in the body in many ways, and significantly impacts one’s self-esteem. So addressing the obesity issue alone through diet and exercise. Is not enough to tackle these contributors to low self-esteem. As long as these are present, they will drive the person to keep eating to elevate the pain of suffering. This sets of guilt and shame which, in turn, cause more bingeing to reduce the pain. It’s a vicious cycle. So how can one break the obesity caused by low self-esteem cycle? Here are five ways to help you start:

Find Your Triggers: Examine the past objectively and figure out what sets off the emotional overeating. Was it a harsh parent? Or excessive rivalry with a good-looking sibling? Or heartbreak during your teenage years? Or a boss’ critical comments during a performance review? These deeper emotional ‘scars’ – such as Aarti’s – must be addressed directly and released permanently to help fully restore one’s self –esteem. Doing this will automatically break the obesity and low self-esteem cycle by eliminating the emotional driving forces that bring one’s self esteem bring one’s self esteem down. As a result, the person no longer feels a need to ‘soothe’ himself with food to make the ‘pain’ go away.

Confide in someone: A friend, Counsellor or trusted relative. Talking and releasing old pan is essential. Guidance and support is also needed when trying to lose weight.

Respect yourself: Stop punishing yourself. And don’t laugh off or cry over the thoughtless comments others may pass about you. Learn to be assertive and stand up for yourself. After all, if you don’t respect your body, no one else will.

Mirror mirror. Look at yourself in the mirror carefully once every morning. Examine yourself and pinpoint the good things about your appearance. Then pay a heartfelt compliment to your reflection in the mirror. This exercise has been known to help obese people feel better.

Keep Health as the focus: Eat healthy and engage in exercise for the right reasons, that is, as a way to regain your lost self-worth and not because your doctor or family pushes you to. Let health be a priority which is important to all those who truly love themselves.

Clinical psychologist Sheila Forman in her book do you use food to cope, says: “When you address self-esteem and start to value yourself more, you will start to take better care of yourself. Over time, as your self-esteem goes up, your weight will come down.”

This article first appeared in the Mumbai Mirror on November 29th 2019