Nutrition, Psychology

It’s Not Your Fault if You’re Overweight

Yeah you read that right.  I had two motivations to writing this piece.  The first is to remove any useless guilt and shame an overweight person may be experiencing; which often presents as a road block to shifting said weight.  The second is to instill some compassion in the mind of any health professionals, coaches and personal trainers who are frustrated with those clients who simply “don’t do what they need to do”.

I am well aware that some may find such a statement – and the arguments that follow – an excuse for people lacking motivation or simply presenting as “lazy”.  However, I wouldn’t hold such a view because it’s convenient, or provides overweight individuals with an easy excuse.  In fact, once upon a time I falsely believed the opposite.  I now hold this view because evidence and reasoning led me to see it as true.  I also believe that understanding why it’s true, is a crucial aspect of helping someone achieve a sustainable healthy body weight for life. Let me explain…

The Responsibility Myth

We’re constantly sold this lie that we’re fully responsible for where we are in life.    That every thought or action we have taken is a conscious decision, where we could have done otherwise had we chosen to.  This is the basis of the ‘free will’ that a lot of people believe exists.  It’s the basis of the free will most people want to exist.  But developments in science are showing that it doesn’t.

Rather than taking the necessary time to convince a believer of free will that it doesn’t exist, let’s explore some areas of ones life that most would agree an individual does not get to choose.

Consider the following scenario…

Sarah is an overweight 19 year old girl.  She grew up in an area with a low socioeconomic status and was raised by obese parents.  Her grand-parents also happened to be obese.  For her whole life she has consumed a diet high in calories, salt, sugar and fat, and low in nutrients.  This was primarily due to unhealthy eating habits she learned from her parents whilst growing up.  Her knowledge on nutrition and healthy eating is close to non-existent.  She is scared of the gym due to fears of being judged.  These fears most likely that stemmed from being bullied for her weight at school. 

Is Sarah responsible for her weight?  She didn’t choose her genes, her parents (obese parents greatly increase risk for obesity), where she was born, or the fact she was born into a society with an over-abundance of food.  She didn’t choose the habits she learned from others growing up, or her lack of opportunity to learn how to alter such habits.  So how can she be responsible for her weight?

Let’s develop this scenario further…

Sarah has recently seen an advertisement for a 12-week plan online.  Spurred on by her shame and self-loathing, she decides to purchase the plan.  She receives her 1200 calorie diet via email, and as suggested, pays to see a personal trainer for a few sessions a week (a huge expense on her low salary).  Sarah sticks to the low calorie diet well for the first week or so.  She enjoys her first couple of personal training sessions and her motivation is peaking.  By the third week however, her cravings are ridiculously high.  She has had a busy and stressful week at work and misses her training sessions because of it.  She comes home from work one night and her unsupportive parents have ordered pizza with a truckload of sides.  Sarah gives in to her unrelenting cravings and consumes more than a fair share of the cheesy goodness.  Guilt and shame at her self-perceived failure quickly ensues.  The shame and fear of being scorned prevents her from following up with her trainer.  She gives up on the diet thinking she’ll never be able to see it through.  Any weight she lost is quickly put back on. 

Is it Sarah’s fault she ate the pizza and fell back into old habits?  Is she to blame for not being able to shift the weight?  This is where the responsibility line begins to blur for some people.  I am aware a few of you may be thinking, “sure, Sarah isn’t responsible for her weight as it was, but it’s her lack of motivation and drive that resulted in her not being able to follow her diet.  She chose to eat that pizza.”

But where do motivation and drive come from?  Are you really responsible for how motivated you are?  We know full well that cravings and urges are a natural biological event.  One that an individual cannot be responsible for.  When calorie intake is low, cravings for food increase.  This is unavoidable.  Yes, some highly motivated individuals can ignore such cravings (albeit at some cost to their mental health).  However most individuals will give in to such cravings, either when stress is high and avoidance behaviours are likely to be engaged in, or when the body’s natural survival instincts override motivation for a particular end goal.

Sarah didn’t choose to have these normal cravings.  She didn’t choose to be stressed.  She didn’t choose for her parents to order pizza, and nor did she actively choose to have a lower level of motivation than someone else might.  She is no more responsible for her current neurological wiring than you are for the cells in your body being replicated right now.  And now science is going one further to say she didn’t even consciously decide to put the pizza in her mouth.  But let’s pretend she at least had the freedom to make the decision at that point.  Given her knowledge, lack of support, biological/neurological wiring, and old habits, was there ever going to be another outcome?

It is completely unethical to attribute blame to Sarah for not selecting a salad over the pizza.  Or to put her on the same footing as someone who would.  I personally might select a salad, however my knowledge, habits and desire may actively push me to want to make such a selection.  How is that a level playing field?  I never actively chose to want the salad (I would in fact want the pizza, but this doesn’t affect the argument).

Removing Full Responsibility Doesn’t Mean One Can’t Change

A common misconception is that by removing responsibility for ones current state, you also remove any motivation for someone to do anything.  That we might as well do nothing as we cannot alter the outcome.  This is untrue.  The removal of the notion of free will does not imply that fatalism (the belief that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable) is true.  Your choices (even if devoid of free will and responsibility) will still alter the outcome of events.

This view does not mean that people don’t make choices.  It means that people don’t actively “choose to choose what they choose”.  This is so important, because understanding how an individuals choices come about, can vastly change how we can intervene in that individuals life.

The Compassion and Practicality of Determinism

How can this new understanding of free will (or lack thereof) alter how we approach change?  First and foremost, it removes a sense of guilt and shame in that individual; which is crucial given that both of these feelings reduce the likelihood of change (weight-loss in this case).  Secondly, it creates a sense of compassion when looking upon that individuals circumstances.  Lastly, it enables one to identify barriers to weight-loss and approach them in a practical manner.

If we know that Sarah’s history, cravings, stress and wiring actively reduce the likelihood of her sticking to a low-calorie diet with no other guidance, then we can develop a different approach to her weight-loss that overcomes these barriers.  Simply expecting Sarah to manifest surplus motivation, or overcome her current biological and neurological state and follow a stringent plan is ignorant at best.


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