By Karen R. Koenig

Living, as we do, in the most fat phobic, thin-obsessed culture in the history of the world, I’m used to the general public making snarky comments about fat people. But some humanists I know—generally thoughtful, ethical, compassionate, enlightened folks who pride themselves in being non-racist, non-sexist and non-homophobic—are a souring disappointment. I cringe when I hear remarks like, “Look what she’s eating. What’s wrong with her? Doesn’t she know she’s obese?” or “I say no to dessert, so why can’t he?” or “She ought to get off her fat butt and exercise.” How dehumanizing!

As a psychotherapist, eating coach, author, and psychology of eating expert, I’d like to correct some misperceptions and untruths about eating and weight and encourage you to use your critical thinking skills on the subject. First, understand that our ability to manage ourselves around food is not based on a level playing field. Feeding ourselves is a bio-psycho-social phenomenon that is far more complex than we ever suspected.

Second, overeating does not equal moral failure. Doesn’t that idea sound a bit churchy to your ears? Consuming food confers neither goodness nor badness upon us. No one is bad because of eating sugar- and fat-laden foods nor good because of not eating them, though that’s what we’ve been taught. Moral brainwashing, anyone?  Better to consider food on a continuum from more to less nutritious. Moreover, science has proven that concepts such as self-control and self-discipline regarding food are woefully outdated. Remember Nancy Regan’s laughably naive “just say no” campaign?

Although the scientific jury is still out on whether fat and sugar are addictive, there is agreement that abusing food has biological and biochemical roots similar to those of alcohol, sex, drug, gambling, and shopping addictions. To avoid starvation, humans are programmed to seek calorie-dense—high-fat, high-sugar—foods by receiving a burst of dopamine, the feel good neurotransmitter, when we eat them. However, not everyone has the same number of dopamine receptors, so some folks need to eat more lasagna to obtain the pleasurable rush that others receive with less of it.

Speaking of brain chemicals, many overeaters suffer with underlying anxiety and depressive disorders based on an imbalance of mood-altering neurotransmitters, so they seek the short-term comfort of food to perk up or calm down. Because neurons that fire together wire together, those which have been entwining since childhood create a lifetime habit that’s incredibly hard to break. Moreover, there’s a high correlation between childhood abuse or neglect and adult overeating. In an article entitled Suicidal Threads (Science News, November 2012), author Laura Sanders maintains that “…early childhood adversity changes the brain in a way that primes it for self-destructive behavior.” In fact, stress and trauma often permanently alter children’s hormonal stress-response systems, keeping them on hyper-alert into adulthood.

When you see fat people, rather than judge them as lazy or lacking self-discipline, think about the fact that many people have lost weight, only to regain it. I’ve treated a number of clients who’ve lost 100 pounds more than once and one who lost 100 pounds three times. Consider the feat that is! However, due to multiple factors, most of them put the weight back on. One is that dieting disregulates appetite and metabolism and is considered by eating disorder experts as the gateway behavior to overeating. By rigidly restricting calories, our metabolism goes into conservation mode, resulting in eating less but retaining weight; we fall out of sync with appetite cues, and develop mistrust of our bodies. Another factor is set-point theory which posits that each person’s weight naturally falls within a prescribed range. Dip below the lowest point and you’ll have difficulty losing weight. Creep above the highest point and your metabolism will speed up. In Rethinking Thin, science writer Gina Kolata maintains that 50-70% of our weight is predetermined by genetics.

There are other contributors to eating and weight. Some people possess more brown fat, a type of adipose tissue which pulls and burns calories from fat cells, supporting slimness. Various gene mutations, by switching on or off other chemicals, increase or decrease appetite. Hormones such as leptin, a major player that tells the body when it’s satiated with food, may not get through to its brain receptors, causing people to want more food because they never feel satisfied. Some folks don’t lose weight from exercise because their appetite substantially increases and they crave more calories.

Finally, the messages we receive about food, eating, weight, and appearance growing up shape our relationship with food ever after. Children who are forbidden or rigidly restricted from eating sweets and treats often become adults who unconsciously are trying to make up for lost time today. Alternately, individuals from families where everyone was overweight and ate mindlessly or emotionally lack emotional management skills and know no other way to manage stress and distress. Then there’s the “boomerang effect,” when we become overly saturated with messages about nutrition and health and, therefore, tune them out.

Sadly, fat people already feel enough shame about their weight and size that it darkly colors every waking moment of their lives. Trust me on that. Rather than condemnation, they deserve enlightened understanding and compassion. Sure, some are in denial and minimize their food problems, but—ahem—who among us is all rational all the time?  Fat has become the new scapegoat in this society, the last bastion of acceptable political incorrectness. 

Next time you make a judgment about a fat person, remember that your thoughts say something about you and nothing about him or her. Take a minute to look within and understand what drives your aversion—getting sucked into society’s hatred of and contempt for fat, your old, religious upbringing regarding sloth and sins of  excess, your own struggles with food and the scale, feeling helpless to “make” someone change, or a desperate need to believe we can control our lives. Whatever you find, replace it with the best in yourself, especially the compassion that is at the heart of humanism.  

Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, Med, is the international author of four books, including The Rules of “Normal” Eating, The Food and Feelings Workbook, Nice Girls Finish Fat, and What Every Therapist Needs to Know About Treating Eating and Weight Issues. She practices psychotherapy in Sarasota, Florida and is an eating coach with a worldwide clientele. Her website is

Further Reading:

Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss—and the Myths and Realities of Dieting by Gina Kolata (2007, Picador)

Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight by Linda Bacon (2008, Benbella Books)

The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David Kessler (2009, Rodale)