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Mind and body

Weight problems can sometimes be traced to childhood trauma

Lavinia Rodriguez

Lavinia Rodriguez

In most cases, weight problems have their roots in lifestyle issues, such as poor eating habits and inactivity. While these may not be easy problems to conquer, they pale next to the psychological barriers that keep some people from realizing their dream of being lean and healthy.

In cases like this, efforts to solve a weight or eating problem with the usual techniques of dieting are often met with repeated failure. People with deeper causes for their dysfunctional eating often blame themselves for failing to lose weight, when it is not their fault.

I have seen many cases of people who tried hard to meet their goals but weren't successful until they figured out the deeper issues behind their weight problems. Some examples:

• Rhonda's dad ridiculed her incessantly about her weight and her eating throughout her childhood and adolescence. "If you eat that, it's going to go right to your hips," Rhonda remembers him saying. She can hardly recall any times in her youth when she wasn't anxious about which put-down her father was going to throw at her next. She believed she was fat and that no one liked her.

As a result, she was painfully shy. Paradoxically, she found comfort only in food, so as the years went by, she gradually gained more and more weight. Now, as an obese adult, when she looks at pictures of herself as a child and sees that she wasn't really so heavy, she doesn't understand why her father was so critical.

• Dinnertime at Renee's house was filled with tension. Because Renee's dad worked nights, everyone had to finish eating in 30 minutes. In addition, Renee's mom forced the children to clean their plates. As an adult, Renee eats in a frenzied manner until all of the food is gone. Food is not even enjoyable to her; it's just something to consume as quickly as possible without leaving a trace.

• Though Richard was bullied and beaten up as a child, he got little support from his parents. He learned to go through life in constant anxiety and fear, believing his adequacy was constantly questioned. As an adult, Richard feels that everyone and everything else is more important than he. Taking care of his health seems self-centered, and he feels he isn't good enough for that.

• Rick was sexually abused by a family member when he was a young boy, and he came to feel he could never trust anyone. But food could be trusted to taste good and make him feel safe. The weight that resulted from looking to food for comfort also helped Rick avoid closeness with others. For Rick, trying to lose weight was an intensely frightening prospect. It meant he would be letting people get close enough to betray him.

It should be understandable why these individuals' lives, health and weight were seriously affected by forces outside their control. They did the best they could with the psychological resources they had at the time.

Just because their repeated efforts to manage their weight and health had failed, that doesn't mean they didn't yearn for success. Quite the contrary.

Negative and traumatic childhood experiences can indeed affect your weight and eating. This knowledge, though, should not be used as an excuse to do nothing about your health. With self-compassion instead of self-ridicule, the knowledge can be used to redirect and solve the problem in a more effective manner.

Addressing such childhood experiences with the help of a trusted and skilled counselor could make following through with healthier eating and exercise behaviors much easier. It may be the missing piece of the puzzle.

Dr. Lavinia Rodriguez is a Tampa psychologist and expert in weight management. She is the author of "Mind Over Fat Matters: Conquering Psychological Barriers to Weight Management." Send questions to her at drrod@fatmatters.com.

Weight problems can sometimes be traced to childhood trauma 07/10/14 [Last modified: Thursday, July 10, 2014 5:25pm]
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