The fear of being fat is a persistent, abnormal fear of putting on weight. It’s almost redundant to say that this fear is far more common in Western cultures with their emphasis on being thin, having a model’s stick-figure and a decided focus on dieting to the extreme.
Obesophobia affects those people who have a desire to lose weight to the point that there is a compulsion to avoid any food that might lead to increased body fat or weight. It is a case of “the more, … the more” where the more the foods are avoided the more the fear grows.
And in case you are wondering, obesophobia may be linked with anorexia nervosa which is the eating disorder that afflicts millions of people world-wide in their quest to be thin.
For the obesophobe, there is a desire for perfection that is evidenced in a belief that failure has occurred if weight is gained. This too is similar for an anorexia or bulimia sufferer who often wants to be the perfect weight, the perfect size, the perfect shape and also get perfect grades.
Unfortunately, the more that weight is lost, the more under-nourished that the person becomes, than the more that logical thought is compromised and the harder it is to break the cycle of malnourishment.
What Causes Fear of Being Fat?
The cause of obesophobia is similar to that of most phobias: environmental, evolutionary and neurobiological factors have pulled together to impact negatively on the afflicted individual.
Environmental factors may include: some external traumatic experience, peer pressure, media pressure, or family pressure, lack of support or instability in one’s life, worrying about the death of someone significant from an obesity-related illness or the death of someone from an obesity or weight-related complication. Additionally, there is the cultural aspect of thin being ‘cool’ which is at odds with most (and not all) fast-food chains and their fat-stacked take-away foods.
Evolutionary factors may include genetic influences, and role modelling by other family members.
Neurobiological factors may include: the individual’s ability or otherwise to cope with stress, nutritional deficits leading to lower levels of endorphins and “happy hormones”, and the impact of trauma and its subsequent emotional chaos.
What are the symptoms of Obesophobia?
I think the obvious one is worrying about food constantly, and not just a food, but all food and whether it will put on weight.
There can also be an obsession with exercise to ensure that weight gain does not occur, a fear of gaining any weight, and many rules that must be followed. These rules may relate to many other areas of life and not just food. They can include rules about clothing, rules about eating in private and never being seen to eat in public; rules about dating; rules about work; and even rules about seeking a doctor’s help. This latter rule can be phrased as, “I only see a doctor if I can’t get out of bed” in order to prevent that doctor from urging the person to eat more.
There can also be other things like perceiving that they are fat, that they over-eat all the time, that restriction leads to perfection and denial of hunger makes them happy.
At this point, the obesophobe may also have full-blown anorexia or bulimia and seriously needs to seek help.
What help is available for Obesophobia or Anorexia?
If you or someone you know has these symptoms it is strongly recommended that professional help is sought immediately from your doctor and psychologist. With this illness, the earlier that help is obtained, the easier it is to attend therapy and the converse applies. The longer that the person has experienced obesophobia or anorexia, it is considered that the therapy will take much longer to bring about a positive response.
Treatment Modalities for Obesophobia
Usually there is a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy and psychotherapy so that thoughts can be reconfigured, emotional responses rewired and relaxation techniques learnt to reduce anxiety.
Some individuals also go on to anti-depressant or anxiolytic medication as they may be depressed and/or anxious in addition to having this fear of gaining weight, or anorexia or bulimia.
Systematic desensitization can occur through gradual exposure to the phobia, and this emphasises modification of the individual’s response to what they fear. Behavioural modification has its roots in behaviour therapy which would attempt to shape a more relaxed, that is, a less challenging reaction in the face of the feared phobia.
To sum up, fear of being fat is a phobia which can lead to an eating disorder, but it does not always do this, and help is available.
According to the Department of Health and Ageing (Australian govt) website:
“Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions involving intense anxiety and preoccupation with body weight and shape, eating and weight control.
One in 100 adolescent girls develops anorexia nervosa, and five in 100 develop bulimia nervosa.
Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness, with approximately 15-20 per cent dying within 20 years.”
Eating Disorders can be helped.
I’ve been busy on the writing front, and now there is a new page on Anorexia Nervosa, that covers the symptoms and suggests some ways of helping someone with anorexia.
I’ve also made available an MP3 audio file on deep breathing, so that anyone can learn to relax and feel comfortable with her/himself, something we all need to do.
I’d love some feedback, so read on here