Our national obesity problem can't be solved through guilt

Written by Susan Mannella on .

I feel the need to address several points from Rod Dreher's May 16 Forum article, "Are Fat People Bad?"

Mr. Dreher notes that "anyone who wishes to exercise self-discipline has to swim against powerful cultural currents." This is overwhelmingly true, and if we're going to consider negatively labeling and trying to change something, let's go after the cultural norms that tripled our obesity rate in 20 years and have created the least healthy generation of American children in modern history.

Mr. Dreher worries that if we stop judging and stigmatizing obesity, overweight people will stop feeling guilty and then it will be even harder for them to control themselves with food. Most of the overweight people I know feel terrible about it; the only time they don't feel terrible about it is when they manage not to think about it. There's nothing you can say to the average overweight person that will be as cruel as what they say to themselves in their thoughts, all day long. So, if guilt is such an effective behavior modifier, why are two-thirds of us overweight?

Mr. Dreher rightly implies that he must continue to accept responsibility for his health, as must we all. Rather than leaning on guilt to do it, it is far more effective to look hard at those cultural currents that push us so hard toward food, and devise strategies for navigating them until such time as those currents change. The focus then turns to managing through a difficult environment rather than rendering judgment on the individuals who are still trying to figure that out.

By the way, if you've ever pressured someone to eat when they're trying to say no ("Oh come on, have some. -- It's just a little piece. -- It's (fill in special event)! -- I made it just for you. -- Try some!"), then you've been part of the environment that has so many of us failing with food.

The writer is a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of compulsive overeaters.

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