There is No Universal Causal Theory of Obesity…

…except perhaps that there is no universal causal theory of obesity.

In a world where everyone is looking for quick-fixes and approaches to dealing with almost any societal problem, quickly degenerate into opinionated activism, I often find it important to remind myself that obesity is not a simple problem where identifying (and eliminating) one cause will “solve” the issue.

I was reminded of this by some of the comments to yesterday’s post on emotional eating, which pointed out that too much emphasis on the emotional aspects of overeating simply adds another narrative to “pathologizing” people with excess weight.

In other words, not only are obese people gluttonous sloths without will power, they are now also emotionally-wounded wrecks (you can chose, which of these is worse).

The fact, however, is that the vast majority of people with excess weight are none of these.

There are countless people with excess weight, who eat as much or as little as skinny folks; the problem of inactivity and sedentariness in Canada affects 95% of the population (and not just the 60% who are overweight or obese); throughout history, overweight and obese individuals have expressed incredible feats of determination and will power; and psychiatric wards are full of skinny people with mental illness.

Thus, as I have often discussed in previous posts, the ‘root causes’ of obesity are as diverse as not having enough money or time to eat to taking medications for your allergies. Throw in an ounce of genetics (any of the the 1000s of genes involved in appetite, hunger, metabolism), and you have the perfect scenario for continuous and fruitless debates on what is really driving the obesity epidemic.

For those of us, who embrace activism, we can chose the target we happen to feel most strongly about and go for it with all our energy and passion.

The list of seemingly worthwhile and deserving targets is long: junk food, caloric beverages, TVs, computer screens, lost cooking skills, built environments, cars, automation, over-scheduled kids, poor parenting, sleep deprivation, environmental toxins, allergies, gut bugs, viruses, stress, dieting, fashion ideals, bullies, and probably a few more.

Which of these factors individually or in combination are most responsible for making us fat is anyone’s guess – what may have some evidence or support at a population level is often irrelevant when it comes to individuals (your reasons for being overweight are different from mine).

So, yes, my readers are right – most of the obesity epidemic is simply the natural response to living in an unnatural environment – or perhaps even just living.

For most people with excess weight, there is probably no real underlying “pathological” driver apart from being human.

This does not mean that obesity, once established, cannot become a pathological state in that it can adversely affect all dimensions of physical, emotional and functional health (or not).

After all, what do most thin people do to stay thin? The correct answer is probably, “not much”.

Edmonton, AB

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