Updated 01 July 2013

The obese personality

Our psychological makeup plays an important role in promoting or preventing obesity. In fact, some experts claim that certain personality types are predisposed to weight gain.

Our psychological makeup plays an important role in promoting or preventing obesity. In fact, some experts claim that certain personality types are predisposed to weight gain.

The main characteristics of the so-called "obesity personality" are believed to be:

•    Lack of self-worth
•    Lack of self-control or compulsive behaviour
•    Emotional lability
•    Tendency to depression and/or anxiety

These personality traits, individually or in combination, can increase the risk of developing overweight or obesity.

Lack of self-worth

People who lack self-worth and regard themselves as failures may seek comfort in eating, and may too easily give up the struggle to lose weight.  The slightest setback in a weight-loss programme can reaffirm a person’s distorted sense of their own failings.

This characteristic can be combated by techniques such as positive affirmation. Tell yourself that you can succeed and make a list of positive things you've already achieved.

Also keep a "positive diary" and note each one of your triumphs, e.g. “Lost half a kilo this week - doing well!” or “Went to the gym, despite feeling tired”. You'll be surprised how successful you actually are when you keep track of positive, instead of negative, things in your life.

Lack of self-control or compulsive behaviour

Many obese people feel they lack self-control when it comes to eating: they simply cannot envisage themselves eating less, cutting out fatty foods or exercising regularly.

In some cases, excessive food intake is a form of compulsion. Compulsive eaters may only feel in control of life when they are eating.

In this situation, a clinical psychologist may use positive affirmation to reward instances of self-control, such as a day’s successful dieting or going to the gym.

If you lack self-control, you may also benefit from diet clubs and organisations that provide structure and motivation for people who cannot control their food intake.

Severe cases of eating compulsion require medical treatment by a psychiatrist and a dietician. If you suspect that you're a compulsive eater, talk to your doctor and ask him/her to refer you for in-depth treatment.

Emotional lability

People who experience a seesaw of emotions, feeling happy one moment and depressed the next, may seek comfort in food as a constant factor in their fluctuating emotional world.

It is possible to wean yourself off this dependence on external factors for emotional satisfaction. A clinical psychologist or a dieting support group can help to give you a sense of stability.

Depression and anxiety

Do you start eating the moment you get worried or anxious? And the greater the stress, the more you eat?

The most important step is to identify the root of your anxiety, which may be subconscious. Consult a clinical psychologist or a stress counsellor if you're plagued by anxiety which makes you turn to food.

The second step is to learn to control your anxiety with coping mechanisms that don't involve eating. Relaxing techniques, yoga and non-stressful exercises are excellent ways of defusing anxiety that threatens to get out of control.

Depression is another psychological condition that can cause weight gain. In part, this is due to inactivity: depressed people may sleep a lot, and may not feel up to doing exercise. In addition, antidepressants can cause weight gain or increase appetite.

If your obesity is linked to depression, it's important to consult a psychiatrist who can prescribe medication to counteract the numbing effects of this illness. A psychiatrist will also help you select an antidepressant that doesn't lead to weight gain.

If you're not getting enough exercise, a clinical dietician can work out a very low-energy diet for you.

- (Photo of large woman from Shutterstock)

Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Read more of her articles.


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