Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 12/19/2010

Weight Loss, Part 2: When the Weight Is There for a Reason

In Part 1, I talked about my friend Gregg, who has a simple and entirely logical approach to weight loss: When his weight becomes a problem, he gets back in shape and loses the excess. At that point, he stops thinking about it until it becomes a problem again.

The proposed solution, which Gregg came up with, is to stop thinking of weight loss as a problem to be fixed when something is broken. It’s more useful to think of body weight as an ongoing maintenance issue, akin to cleaning up the kitchen after each meal.

But what if a person’s weight is not just a health problem? What if it’s a solution to an entirely different problem? I’d never thought about this until my friend Lisa Wolfe, a personal trainer, alerted me to this study by Dr. Vincent Felitti, an obesity specialist with Kaiser Permanente.

The morbidly obese patients Felitti works with have different life experiences from people who’ve never been overweight. They weren’t born to be obese. You wouldn’t know it from the approach to obesity commonly seen in the media (the video above is just one example), but in many cases, their extreme weight gain began with a traumatic incident: molestation, rape, the sudden death of a loved one, divorce. With children, weight problems sometimes begin when their parents divorce.

Eating to excess becomes a way to dull the feelings of loss or violation. The weight itself becomes a barrier that separates the traumatized individual from the circumstances of the trauma. It protects them from unwanted attention.

The study rang all kinds of bells with Lisa, who’s been overweight and who works with obese clients in a private studio. Lisa gets results with a two-part program: group support, and lifting heavy stuff. She has them train with Olympic barbells and heavy dumbbells for strength. They swing kettlebells for power. They do challenging exercises on the TRX to develop balance and core stability. The goal is to give them a sense of their personal power; they can lose the excess weight and have strength as a shield. “The look on their faces, the change in their posture is amazing,” Lisa says.  

I recommend every fitness and nutrition professional read the study. Click on the PDF and print it out. 

I’m not suggesting that all obesity has a clear-cut antecedent. As Newsweek‘s Sharon Begley points out, humans aren’t the only animals gaining weight, and no one is quite sure why.

I just think all of us would be better at helping the overweight if we started from a position of empathy. Sure, at a mathematical level, weight accumulates when there’s a mismatch between calorie intake and expenditure. But in many cases, the excess weight and the excess consumption serve a purpose for the end user of the calories. If we don’t know what that purpose is, what comfort or shelter it provides, the best information in the world won’t do a thing to reduce it.


  • That study by Dr. Felitti is one of the most striking things I’ve ever read about obesity and weight loss, and it sums up so many ideas I’ve been unable to articulate myself. I’ve been fat my entire life — since birth — and it’s difficult to describe or explain to someone who has never had that experience. I’m not lazy, I’m not stupid, I’m not undisciplined — very much the opposite! What I am is tormented. I hate to even admit that, but reading the article I see so much of my life experience in what the obese people reported. There is a *reason* I’m fat, and it’s not simply that I eat too many cookies. I don’t want anyone’s pity, I don’t even want anyone’s sympathy: I’m a strong person dealing with my life as best I can, which is all anyone can do. But yes, I wouldn’t mind a little empathy once in a while, especially from the fitness and health people, who sometimes simply can’t hide their contempt for fat people. As the saying goes, until you’ve walked a mile in someone’s shoes, don’t judge them.

    Thanks for the link to the article. I feel like I’m going to be more successful in my fitness and WL efforts now, because it’s given me so much to think about (things I don’t particularly want to think about…) that may be the key, finally.

  • Mostly it is a psychological problem. So there is a reason but often the assumptions are wrong the people asume to be the cause.

  • Hey Lou,

    Great post! I must commend you for taking the time to address this topic. With obesity often being blamed exclusively on the person, it is good to see someone shining a light on other potential contributors. If you’re not familiar with Dr. Sharma, his blog might make for some great reading along these lines.


    Truth be told, I think that many people (even those who need to lose far less weight) are limited largely by psychological and sociological barriers than knowing which exercises to do or which foods to eat.

  • Mark, thanks for the Sharma link. Fascinating take from a physician.

  • It is not just that simple. Circumstances can of course influence someone’s weight but often its bad habbits that overweight people can’t or don’t wanna change. Staying actice is the key, not going by car everywhere, taking the steps instead of the escalator. A change in attitude it is not a psychological problem!

  • Lara, but isn’t attitude, by definition, a psychological problem?

    I don’t think anybody wants to argue that circumstances cause weight gain. Too much food and too little activity do that. The question is, why are they overeating and inactive? What do they get out of those behaviors that they don’t get from a better diet and a good workout program?

    If the answer is that they get tangible benefits from the behaviors that made them overweight, or from the weight itself, then we have to approach the problem in a different way. We have to help them get what they need, not just what we think they should want.