07 February 2012

Too fat for burial: how does this happen?

DietDoc takes a look at what makes up the obese personailty and the reasons why partners, parents and family sometimes overfeed an already obese person.

Members of a Pretoria family have appealed to the government and public for help in burying a relative who is "too fat" for a normal burial.

Eyewitness News reported that Chris Labuschagne died of an undisclosed illness at Kalafong Hospital. He was morbidly obese and weighed around 550kg.

The comment box contained many comments ranging from sympathy for Chris, to horror and condemnation and questions on how the family could have allowed this situation to develop: at 550kg he would not have been able to move, so other people would have had to bring him food.

DietDoc takes a look at what makes up the obese personailty and the reasons why partners, parents and family sometimes overfeed an already obese person.

The obese personality

Our psychological makeup plays an important role in either promoting or preventing obesity.

In fact, some experts claim that people who tend to become overweight have a very distinctive type of personality that predisposes them 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 can either individually, or in combination, increase the risk of developing overweight and/or obesity.

Lack of self-worth
People who lack self-worth and regard themselves as failures may seek comfort in eating and also give up the struggle to lose weight before they've even started.

“I won’t be able to lose weight/diet/exercise, because I’m such a failure” is a common refrain. The slightest setback in a slimming programme will also reaffirm your erroneous belief that you're a failure.

This characteristic needs to 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" when slimming 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 report that they have an absolute lack of self-control when it comes to eating. They just cannot stop gorging on food and they cannot envisage themselves eating less or cutting out fatty foods or exercising regularly.

In some cases excessive food intake is a form of compulsion. Compulsive eaters may say, “I only feel in control of life when I'm eating vast amounts of food.” 

Sound familiar? Then you need counselling by a clinical psychologist who 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 will also benefit from diet clubs and organisations such as Weighless and Weight Watchers. These organisations 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 are constantly on a seesaw of emotions, feeling happy one moment and depressed the next, tend to also seek comfort in food which they regard as the only constant factor in their fluctuating emotional world.

If this is you, it's important to realise that you're dependent on external factors for emotional satisfaction. You need to wean yourself of this dependence.

Get help from a clinical psychologist or a dieting support group, who'll give you the kind of stability you crave.

Depression and/or 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 first try and identify the root of your anxiety, which may lie at a very subconscious level.

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 by learning 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. This is in part due to the inactivity such patients experience. They tend to sleep for many hours a day and hardly ever feel up to doing any exercise. In addition, antidepressants may also cause weight gain or increase appetite.

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

Also see a clinical dietician who will work out a very low-energy diet if you're not getting enough exercise.

Overfeeding a loved one

There are many reasons why parents, family and partners overfeed an already overweight family member.


Despite the advances in our knowledge regarding overeating, there are many parents who encourage their children to “Eat up. It’s good for you” or “Finish all the food on your plate.” These parents also often equate food intake with love and approval. If you, the child, don’t eat the food that has lovingly been prepared for you, then you are branded as ungrateful, willful and unloving.

On the other hand if you dutifully eat the mountains of food that are dished up for you at every meal (without asking what and how much you would like to eat!), then you are rewarded with love and affection. This type of tyranny has far-reaching psychological effects on future eating patterns.

If you are taught to regard food as a reward and a substitute for love, then you will revert back to food as a comfort and a source of satisfaction every time you have a crisis in your life, with disastrous consequences for your weight.


And then there are the beloved partners who actively discourage attempts at slimming. “You don’t need to diet, I love the way you look.” Partners are also experts at undermining one’s resolve to eat a balanced diet or exercise regularly. Does your partner moan about the fact that you are not cooking traditional meals dripping with fat? Or does she/he sabotage your plans to go to the gym?

Or tell you that you are looking haggard after you have lost those first few hard-won kilograms? Basically these husbands or wives are either trying to manipulate you psychologically or are themselves afraid that once you lose weight you will no longer be so easy to control. An attractive slender partner may be regarded as a threat or as competition.

How to escape the trap

If you are caught in the tender trap of emotional overweight due to pressure from parents or partners, then the first thing you need to do is to realise how these people are manipulating you. Step back and take a good, hard look at your relationship and figure out how you are being kept a prisoner by being fat.

Try to assess why your parents/partners are resorting to this type of blackmail. Do they lack confidence or are they trying to hurt you or control you? Once you have identified the reasons which motivate them and how they are going about keeping you from dieting and/or exercising, then you can plan how to elude the tender trap.

If you cannot achieve this on your own, then please get help from a clinical psychologist. Even if your parents or partners refuse to attend therapy sessions with you, the changes that take place in your psychological makeup will be sufficient to upset the balance of the household system that imprisons you and to set you free.

Advice for parents

If you read this article and come to realise that you are encouraging your child to overeat because you cannot express your love in any other way, or because you want to keep control of him or her, then please try to do something about the situation. Show your love by trusting your child and allowing him or her to develop emotionally without using food as a crutch or a comfort.

Keep mealtimes as pleasant as possible and stop yourself from saying things like “Eat your food. Just think of the starving children in Africa, you ungrateful child.” Unless they are suffering from an eating disorder, children and teenagers should be allowed to select how much they want to eat at meals.

Studies have shown that even young children can select a good variety of food when they are not pressured to eat by adults. Keep emotions out of eating and your children will grow up without being dependent on food and a lot less likely to suffer from obesity. - (Dr IV van Heerden, DietDoc, updated December 2011)


- (Dr I.V. van Heerden, DietDoc, updated October 2011)

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