Be honest. How many of you saw the first televised view of George Zimmerman after almost a year and said to yourself, "Wow, he sure has gained weight?" Unless you were on another planet during the winter and early spring of 2012, you were familiar with newspaper pictures of the fit and slim Zimmerman. Now, a little more than a year later, he looks like a different person, someone we are not sure we recognize.
George Zimmerman is not on trial for weight gain, but his total change in body habits is a good case study on how stress can cause obesity. According to his defense attorney, Zimmerman was almost a recluse for this past year and avoided going out in public because of enormous negative publicity. The stress of the impending trial for murder, plus the psychological discomfort of being under constant scrutiny if he ventured away from his home, must have been almost unendurable. So he did what many of us do, under considerably lesser stress: he ate too much and moved very little.
Apparently this was sufficient to produce his substantial weight gain.
One does not have to be standing trial for murder to engage in stress-associated overeating. Although there are some who seem to shrink when stressed because their stomachs won't accept food, most people gain weight. And the current interventions, like putting calorie values on fast-food menus, or telling us we will have to jog up Mt. Everest to work off the calories in the sandwich we just ate, are not helpful. According to my weight-loss clients, the trigger to overeating is the feeling of helplessness. The problem may be a parent who needs 24-hour care, a long period of unemployment, or erratic, demanding supervisors who "forget" to mention deadlines or criticize the placement of a staple on a stack of papers. If living with the stressful situation is the only option, then many eat as a way of bearing the stress. As one of my clients told me when facing the terminal illness of a close relative," Eating numbs the pain."
The foods of choice are very high in fat. One client used to eat an entire jar of mayonnaise in one sitting while others consumed fried foods, butter, full-fat cheese, high-fat ice cream, bacon and fatty cold cuts. As with physical pain, the desired effect was to become numb. Think of it as getting food-based novocaine for an emotional toothache. They wanted to feel nothing. Unfortunately, like novocaine, the numbness wears off and the emotional pain returns. And then the eating resumes.
The numbness produced by binge-like consumption of high-fat foods does decrease emotional responsiveness, but it also dulls cognitive behavior. The client whose relative was so sick came to see me because she was facing many legal and logistical responsibilities. She described her high-fat diet as numbing her mental capacity. "I can't continue to feel like a zombie," she told me. "How can I be calm and also cope with the stress?"
Substituting low-fat, high-carbohydrate snacks (like pretzels, popcorn and sweetened breakfast cereal) for the fat-rich snacks she was eating brought about the calmness she sought without numbing her cognitive capacity. By eating foods that allowed serotonin to be made, she benefited from the emotional well-being brought about by active neurotransmitter. But, of course, this came at a price. She emerged from her emotional coma once she stopped eating so much fat and had to face the very sorrowful outcome of her close relative. But we all have to face these pains and problems as we age.
George Zimmerman's weight gain is obvious to us because we knew what he looked like right after the shooting and how he appears now, as he stands trial. But we all know people whom we may not have seen for months or years who have also gained enormous amounts of weight. It is almost certain that stress precipitated the weight gain, rather than a sudden passion for doughnut, bacon and cheese sandwiches.
Can this weight gain be prevented? The American Medical Association recently designated obesity as a disease based on the pathology that accompanies excessive weight. A spokesperson for the organization made the analogy with lung cancer and smoking saying, in effect that although smoking may cause lung cancer, one cannot dismiss the cancer as a behavioral problem, i.e., the inability to stay away from cigarettes. Lung cancer is a disease. And although obesity is caused by the behavior of overeating and lack of exercise, the consequence is also a disease. But what about a person's inability to deal with unrelenting stress without eating excessively? Might that also be a behavior in need of therapeutic intervention?
Must the individual, unable to prevent excessive eating, wait until he or she is already suffering from the disease called obesity for help? To borrow from the AMA's example, one would not wait until someone has a diagnosis of lung cancer to help him stop smoking. Yet programs to identify and help people who are eating to numb their emotional pain by and large do not exist. Have you ever seen a message on TV offering to help such individuals?
What we need are fewer fad diets and more programs to help people deal with intense, chronic stress before they eat themselves into obesity.