What REALLY Causes Weight Gain?

I have been asking the same question for years… what REALLY causes weight gain?

This question is usually answered simply and succinctly by stating the Law of Thermodynamics and how calories work with the human body. But since calories were discovered in 1890’s and people have been following the ol’ “eat less, move more” advice, weight gain has increased, and people are struggling more than ever to feel normal and sane in their bodies and around food.

Not to mention, following conventional advice will grant you a 2% success rate. This clearly leaves more to the imagination.

After finishing Johann Hari‘s book on addictions and the drug war, I was fascinated with the idea that there’s a less than 20% chance people are addicted to drugs and alcohol due to the chemicals in these substances.

Johann, of course, was propelled to discover what is the cause of addiction? After years of investigating he found out addictions were caused by trauma and isolation, or something connected to those things.

This got me thinking… Brene Brown says the cure to shame is connection.

Chris Voss explains the secret to sales is connection.

Babies can literally die without connection

And now, Johann Hari is saying the cure for addictions is, wait for it… connection.

Not to mention, I have been teaching weight loss this way for nearly a decade, without knowing that’s what it was.

Being that my dissertation is about a year away and I have the patience of Speedy Gonzales, I posted a simple survey on Google Forms* and bribed people to fill it out.

The intention of this survey was simple… is there any correlation between isolation, connection, and weight. And because my background is Food Psychology, I threw in some questions about food too.

The results of the survey are listed below:

Sample:

  • 60 people filled out the survey, however, a few didn’t complete it fully so I threw out their responses bring the final sample size to 56.
  • 63% of the participants were middle-aged
  • 86% of the participants were white
  • 93% of the participants were women

Beliefs About Weight

  • 61% of the time participants believed they were overweight when they weren’t through self-report
  • 14% of participants self-reported never gaining weight yet 75% of them believed they were overweight as a child, teen or young adult.
  • The most common age for believing one was overweight was teenage years, yet 60% of them report not actually being overweight at that time
  • 70% of all participants report one or both parents struggling with weight
  • 55% of participants stated they have always been overweight even though previously reporting their weight gain happened later in life
  • Only 2% of all participants stated not being overweight even though BMIs show 25% of participants are not overweight

Results: There is clearly a divide between the perception of being overweight and actually being overweight. This is an entire study in itself in my opinion. Where is this coming from? My hunch… perfectionism.. control… stuff like that.

Childhood

  • Around 70% of all participants report a less than ideal childhood
  • Around 50% of all participants felt connected during childhood 
  • All participants felt isolated during childhood around 60% of the time
  • The majority of all participants reported they lacked adequate coping mechanisms as children
  • All participants report not feeling out of control around  food as a child around 70% of the time
Participants with

BMI over 25

Participants with

BMI under 25

Told Some Foods Are Bad

57%

85%

Some Foods Are Off-Limits

28%

53%

Never Felt Out-of-Control Around Weight

64%

85%

Did NOT Use Food to Suppress

53%

85%

Results: All participants report equal challenging childhoods with a lack of adequate coping mechanisms. Interestingly, the majority of all participants report no issues with food as children. However, participants with a BMI under 25 were given rules around food more often than those with a BMI over 25. Also, the majority of participants with BMI under 25 reports not feeling out of control around weight and not using food to cope.

Adulthood

Participants with

BMI over 25

Participants with

BMI under 25

Told Some Foods Are Bad

Majority

Majority

No Foods Are Off-Limits

53%

70%

Never Felt Out-of-Control Around Weight

10%

70%

Did NOT Use Food to Suppress

21%

62%

Feel Connected

50%

70%

Feel Isolated

70%

40%

Cope with Pain Well

19%

38%

Use Health Coping Mechanisms

40%

92%

Not Bad to Eat Junk Food

64%

77%

Virtuous to Eat Healthy

91%

54%

Never Felt Out-of-Control Around Food

14%

70%

Effective Coping Strategies

66%

93%

Shame Around Weight

Over 90%

46%

Shame Around Food

70%

46%

Results: The majority of all participants are being told rules about foods being good and bad but 70% of participants with lower BMIs report that there are no foods that are off-limits compared to 53% of participants with higher BMI. This is in direct contrast with the children where the majority of participants with a BMI under 25 are told there are foods that are off-limits. Furthermore, the lower BMI group believes that eating junk food isn’t bad more often than not and that eating healthy isn’t virtuous more often than the higher BMI group. Once again, it appears the lower BMI group has switched their beliefs around food, regardless of what they were told as children.

It is not a big surprise that participants with a lower BMI report feeling out-of-control around weight and food less often than those with a higher BMI as well as less shame around weight and food. What’s interesting, however, is that as children this was not the case for the majority of those with a higher BMI. This indicates that a switch happened at some point during the aging process. Also, while all participants report similar numbers for feeling connected and isolated as children, in adulthood there is a clear divide where lower BMIs increase their connection and decrease their isolation. The higher BMI group stays around the same and even increases in isolation slightly.

Another big jump is in regards to coping mechanisms. As children, both groups report having less than ideal coping skills. Yet, in adulthood, the lower BMI group increases their coping skills significantly. They report being able to cope better and using healthy coping mechanisms more often than higher BMI.

Discussion: Based on this very basic survey with limitations it does show a slight correlation with the idea that increasing connection, decreasing isolation and ignoring food rules would lead to a lower BMI. Formal quantitate studies are needed to investigate this deeper and confirm the results of this preliminary study.

Limitations:

Small sample size

Mostly middle-aged Caucasian women participated

*Questions used in the survey can be viewed here: https://goo.gl/forms/BqP8pJrV1zL4ep613

About The Author

Michelle Hastie

Michelle Hastie Thompson is a recovered binge eater who turned her binge eating around and even got featured in Shape Magazine helping a woman lose weight in “My Weight Loss Diaries". She helps women end the battle of binge and overeating, fall in love with movement, and finally lose the weight permanently. A veteran weight loss coach for almost ten years, she is a Ph.D. student in Health Psychology and has three published books, the most recent titled, "Have Your Cake and Be Happy Too: A Joyful Approach to Weight Loss”.