We live in a world where the fear of weight gain is a big deal. Such a big deal, in fact, that we now have a term for it: obesophobia.
After working for over four decades in the fields of eating psychology and nutrition, I’ve witnessed thousands of students, clients, friends and loved ones stay stuck in a state of fear around body fat.
What’s fascinating is that the fear of gaining weight can be present no matter how much you weigh. People of all shapes and sizes can be gripped by this fear. Perhaps you know someone who has the “ideal” body that so many people want, but that person is still afraid of gaining weight.
The challenge is, the fear of weight gain can debilitate us. It can ruin our day, our week, and our existence. It’s the kind of fear that can keep us on the sidelines of life, and not fully living into the potential that we came here to live.
So let’s get down to business and address this fear like never before.
I’m going to explore with you:
- The 4 keys to working with fear of weight gain.
- Where the fear of gaining weight truly comes from.
- The hidden ways that this fear impacts us.
- How the fear of weight gain actually hinders weight loss.
- And the key practices to help you overcome the fear of weight gain.
Let’s dive in…
Step #1: The Fear of Weight Gain is a Conditioned Response
The first step to letting go of the fear of weight gain is to answer the question: where does this fear actually come from, and how did it get here in the first place?
The good news is, the answer is quite simple:
The fear of gaining weight is a conditioned response.
Meaning, you were taught this fear by the world. It’s been ingrained in our minds since a very young age. It’s hard to escape the message called “If you’re fat, you’re screwed. Extra weight means you’re a loser who will never be loved or accepted, or live the good life. You must avoid body fat at all costs.”
This fear is subtly communicated in movies, cartoons, television shows, magazine images, and most profoundly, in social media.
It’s reinforced by well-meaning parents, family, friends, and experts. This fear is communicated to us worldwide, no matter what country you’re from. It grips both women and men.
The bottom line?
You didn’t personally invent this fear.
It’s not coming from your own inner knowing. It’s not naturally springing from your own moral compass, or your own deepest values.
It has simply found a home in your brain, and is constantly reinforced by dozens of external “authorities” and it’s perfectly happy to announce itself on a daily basis.
The people closest to us applaud us when we lose weight. They’re uncomfortable when we gain it. We see fabulous looking people on social media who seem to have it all and live the perfect life. Our movie stars are so often slender. The fashion models that are hurled at us in the advertising universe are most often impossibly thin.
More importantly, the fear of weight gain is drilled into our sensitive and open minds from a very young age – before we have the cognitive skills, self-awareness, and life experience to defend ourselves. Girls as young as 4 years old will already have learned to critique their own unacceptable weight and body parts. And as fears go, it has tremendous staying power.
Don’t ever blame yourself for having this fear.
Don’t think for one moment that you’re somehow weak or deficient because this fear has a hold on your life. Just know that it’s an inheritance from the world that’s virtually impossible to avoid.
But like any fear that finds a home in us, we have the ability to send it on its way. Here are some things you can do start yanking out the fear of weight gain by its roots:
Go on a media diet.
Watch what you let into your mind at least as much as you watch what you put in your body.
- Watching entertainment that makes you feel bad about your body or yourself.
- Comparing yourself to others on social media.
- Focusing on pictures of people who you think you need to look like.
- Assuming that people who look “perfect” have perfect lives.
Your body is not a competition. Let go of your jealousy and envy. Bless those who seem to have the body you want. Stop believing that just because someone has the “perfect” looks or weight means they have the “perfect” life.
- Spending time with people who are body positive.
- Looking at yourself in the mirror with more kindness and sweetness.
- Noticing people with your same body type who are enjoying life.
- Moving and playing in ways that make you feel alive at any size.
Reclaim your dignity by withdrawing your attention from anything that causes you to judge your own beauty and self worth, and refocusing it on things that really matter and support your overall mental and physical health.
This is the first step to getting on the road to freedom from the fear and anxiety of gaining weight.
It’s all about examining the hidden instigators that are feeding your fears, and committing yourself to the practice of removing these triggers so you can find your natural state of self appreciation.
Step #2: The Fear of Weight Gain Creates a State of “Red Alert”
Now that you know where this fear comes from, let’s take a look at its nature and impact.
When we’re afraid to gain weight, we’re in a constant state of red alert.
Specifically, this fear puts both body and mind into what is called the “physiologic stress response.” That’s the purpose of fear. It’s here to help us survive a threat. We’re designed to go into the fight or flight stress response whenever we’re truly in danger.
The problem is, not all fears are actually “real.” A real threat is a bear chasing you, your house on fire, an out of control car coming in your direction – that sort of thing.
Many of our fears are imaginary: The goblins under your bed when you were a kid. The end of the world coming because the person you gave your phone number to never called you. The fear that weight gain will completely ruin your life and snuff out all happiness now and forever.
It’s helpful to notice that when we have an imaginary fear, we’ll tend to look for evidence of that fear coming into reality.
So when it comes to the fear of weight gain, have you noticed yourself:
- Frequently bracing against it.
- Constantly weighing yourself to see if your fear has been made into reality.
- Looking in the mirror for hints of more body fat.
- Seeing your appetite as the gateway to dreaded weight gain.
- Putting yourself in a state of chronic dieting.
- Fighting food.
- Fighting your natural, inborn need to eat and nourish yourself.
- Making your fear into a real and constant threat.
If so, you’re not alone.
And again, not all fear is bad. It’s supremely useful in life or death situations. Fear causes us to act decisively when our existence is truly on the line.
But the fear of weight gain has a false “life or death” quality.
It takes us into our worst case scenario. We make it into a much larger threat than it actually is. We think we’ll just continue to gain weight and never stop eating until we explode – or something like that.
If you haven’t noticed it by now, the intense fear of weight gain can easily prevent you from living your best life. It’s debilitating. It’s constantly nagging at us. We believe that an unwanted weight gain will surely cause us to live miserably ever after.
So here’s a great technique to help you liberate yourself.
The Weight Witnessing Exercise
The idea is to bring down your “stress temperature” when it comes to the fear of gaining weight.
Here’s what to do:
First, realize that your desire to lose weight is exactly that: a desire. A preference. Something you’d really really like. It’s not, however, a life or death event.
Your existence does not depend on how much you weigh.
Next, choose to notice the moments that the fear of weight gain arises in your mind, and catch yourself in those moments:
- Notice the fear.
- Witness it. Where are you feeling it in your body?
- Acknowledge to yourself, “My fear of adding on more body fat is gripping me in this moment.”
- Then, ask yourself, “Is this an actual life threatening danger? Is my life really on the line right now?”
- Allow yourself to calm down, to relax as best you can, and to let go of the boogey man that you have created in that moment.
- To calm your nervous system, try simple, deep, slow breathing. Do this for less than a minute and you’ll notice how effective it can be.
Consider this an ongoing practice.
In essence, you’re having a reckoning with yourself.
You’re engaging in a mature and wise inner dialogue.
Downsize the impossible responsibility that you put on your weight loss number. Recognize that a number on the scale won’t guarantee you happiness.
Feel free to want to be at a certain weight … just don’t put all the weight of the world on a bunch of body fat.
This exercise is all about helping you intentionally shift your mindset.
You’re giving yourself the gift of seeing the world through fresh and mature eyes.
Step #3: The Fear of Weight Gain Stimulates Weight Gain
One of the best kept secrets in the obesity medicine and weight universe is this:
Over 98% of people who lose weight on a weight loss diet gain it back within a year, and then some.
That’s both a stunning and sobering statistic.
It makes perfect sense why so many of us are afraid of gaining weight. It’s because we keep noticing how hard it is to lose it in the first place, and then how easy it is to gain it back. The odds are clearly against us.
But the good news is, we can move those odds to a far more favorable place when we understand some of the hidden factors that contribute to weight gain, and weight loss resistance.
What I discovered over 35 years ago when I dove into the research is that there’s one truly profound and important contributing factor to weight gain that few experts talk about:
Anything that causes us excess stress in our lives will lead to the physiologic fight-or-flight stress response in the body. The stress response is a powerful chemical and metabolic event.
It’s so powerful in fact, that a prolonged day-in-day-out low level stress response can signal the body to store weight, store fat, and not build muscle – which is essentially your calorie burning tissue. Stress also has profound influences on our digestion, which in turn affect weight.
In other words, stress can actually cause weight gain.
Now you might not have realized it, but fear itself is a powerful stressor.
This means any kind of fear: fear that our life won’t work out, fear that we won’t have enough money, fear that we’ll lose our job, fear that we won’t find true love, and more.
So if stress can cause weight gain, and if fear is a potent stressor, then we must consider this paradoxical and unexpected fact:
The fear of weight gain can stimulate weight gain.
So the very thing we’re trying to avoid – excess fat – is called into existence via the stress response.
One of the main mechanisms of the weight promoting impact of stress is via the hormones insulin and cortisol. Did you know that insulin and cortisol can cause weight gain? When secreted in excess, these powerful biochemicals will indeed signal the body to store fat.
Additionally, the stress response causes:
- Excess inflammation
- Decreased digestive capacity
- Impaired mitochondrial function
- Sleep disturbance
- Appetite dysregulation
…All of which can contribute to weight gain as well.
So if your inner world is dominated by the fear of weight gain, you’re literally generating the most fertile ground for fat deposition.
You’re creating a self fulfilling metabolic prophecy.
You’re calling fat onto your body by fearing it.
What’s oddly problematic is that when we have a constant fear of weight, we’ll be under stress. And one of the favorite ways that we manage stress is to turn to our favorite stress reliever:
In other words, many people medicate their constant anxiety around the fear of weight gain by stress eating.
Can you see the conundrum here?
And are you seeing how the fear of weight gain serves absolutely no good purpose when it comes to finding our natural weight?
So here’s what to do:
Take a stress inventory.
- Write down everything in your life that causes you fear, anxiety, anger or stress.
- Make a list of all persons, places, experiences, activities, thoughts, feelings and beliefs that cause you to feel stressed.
- Then, notice which of these stressors are self chosen.
- What are the ones that you actually have a “say” in?
- Which stressors can you begin to downsize, or to begin to let go of?
Revisit this exercise periodically.
Over time, you’ll notice that your overall stress burden will decrease, putting you in a more suitable place when it comes to finding your natural weight.
Notice the amount of power and authority that you give over to this fear.
- Is your fear of gaining weight truly so fearsome?
- Do you need to indulge in it as often as you do?
- And does your body truly deserve such a constant barrage of fear?
As a replacement for the fear of weight gain, consider taking some time to consciously appreciate your body.
In fact, make a list of all the ways that you’re grateful for your body.
- How has your body faithfully served you?
- How has it stood by you? Kept you alive?
- Exactly what about your body deserves your thankfulness? Your kindness? Your acknowledgment?
Gratitude for your body is a powerful antidote for self-criticism.
It’s time to create a whole new inner dialogue that’s focused on far more than just fear of fat and judgment around weight.
It’s time to welcome your body into your life – and your life into your body.
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Step #4: The Fear of Weight Gain is All About a Deeper Fear: Not Being Loved
To further help you let go of the fear of gaining weight so you can experience more peace and happiness, let’s take at another fear that’s often hidden behind the fear of weight gain.
Through the course of life, we’ve been conditioned and taught by the world that our looks, weight and shape define us. And as a result, we’ve learned that these things are the measure of our true worth.
We’ve been taught that, to be loved and accepted, we have to look and act a certain way.
This conditioning is almost universal – just about all of us have been exposed to it, and too many have taken it on.
So, behind the fear of weight gain lies a deeper and scarier fear:
The fear that we won’t be loved.
Fundamental to being a human being on planet Earth is the need to be loved.
This core desire is built into our DNA, our cells, and our soul. Above all else, we require love. We want it. We hunger for it. We dream about it.
While we can technically live without love, a part of us instinctively knows that we will be far better off when love graces us.
But when we equate weight with love and self-worth, as the world has taught us to do, we run into challenges.
Many have adopted the belief that if you weigh too much, you won’t have love.
Conversely, if the number on the scale is low enough, you’re guaranteed to be a winner in love. And you’ll continue to have love as long as you comply with the magic weight loss number that you believe in so dearly.
This toxic, unfortunate belief prevents us from experiencing the thing we want the most: love.
Rather than focusing on the things we need to do to invite love into our life:
- We focus on weight.
- We focus on body fat.
- We focus on the imaginary fear of weight gain.
- We feel terrified about whether we’ll be accepted just as we are – so we try to become who we think others want us to be.
I’ve worked with so many students, clients, friends and loved ones over the years who refused to date until they lost weight.
Many went through a decade or more of being alone and unhappy because they firmly believed they were unworthy of love unless they lost weight.
Look around you. People of all shapes and sizes have love in their lives.
They have husbands, wives, partners, children and grandchildren. They have great sex. They have fun. They hold hands. They stand by each other. They’re committed to each other.
Imagine for a moment that every morning you woke up to the world:
- There’s someone next to you in bed who told you that you weigh too much.
- They repeated that you’re not worthy of love until you lose weight.
- That you’ll be miserable and alone if you gain any more weight.
Imagine that this same person followed you around all day and in random moments, reminded you of all these fears and judgements.
You’d probably think about breaking up with them, right?
Well, that’s what so many of us do to ourselves.
We bully our body and our mind with a barrage of insults that stops us from any kind of inner peace and happiness.
That self-bullying voice then has us dieting, calorie restricting, weighing ourselves, and constantly on red alert.
Meaning, this voice puts us in the physiological stress response, which by itself causes weight gain or weight loss resistance, along with decreased digestion, mood, energy level, and appetite regulation.
It’s time to give the weight loss bully a rest.
So here’s your most powerful practice:
The “Put First Things First” Practice.
Get clear with yourself about what truly matters to you. Take some time and write a list of all the things you truly want most in this life that have nothing to do with weight.
- Do you want love?
- Do you want a life partner?
- A family?
- Meaningful work?
- Quality time with the people you care about?
- Sexual expression?
- Personal fulfillment?
Be honest with yourself and write down the things you want that come from the deepest place inside you.
What would truly make life worth living?
Then, go about the business of focusing on what truly matters most to you.
By putting first things first, you will naturally downsize the fear of weight gain, which actually puts you in a better biochemical state to actually lose weight.
Here’s a few closing thoughts to wrap things up:
As far as I can tell, we are all here, at the very least, to learn and grow.
For this reason, it’s very helpful to look at our relationship with food and body as a great teacher.
If you have a fear of weight gain, you won’t be able to become your best self. So your responsibility to yourself is to grow beyond this fear. To find the beautiful diamond within you. To focus on what truly matters most to you.
You’re here to learn to love your body. To stop placing impossible conditions on it.
To stop bullying it, starving it, and berating it.
Your birthright is a happy nourishing relationship with food, and a positive and uplifting experience of your body.
It’s time to claim that birthright.
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