The Wall Street Journal’s Health Journal, in a column today (January 10, 2012), asks Is Your Personality Making You Fat? According to the article, I have practically every trait researchers have identified as leading to obesity:
In the study, those who scored high on neuroticism—the tendency to easily experience negative emotions—and low on conscientiousness, or being organized and disciplined, were the most likely to be overweight and obese. Impulsivity was strongly linked to BMI, too…
I easily experience negative emotions. Why else would I call myself a curmudgeon? Yet I’m quite organized and disciplined, so maybe that ameliorates the negative emotions I feel, particularly for stupid articles trying to give people an explanatory excuse for being slothful gluttons. But I am impulsive. Ready at all times to chuck it all and walk away. When I was practicing law, I’d fire a client in a quick snort if I ever caught them lying to me. Isn’t that impulsive?
The link between emotions, food and weight control starts at a very early age. Toddlers who had low-quality emotional relationships with their mothers are more than twice as likely to be obese at age 15 as those who have closer bonds, according to a study of 977 children funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and published in the journal Pediatrics this month.
I think it would be difficult for a toddler to have had a lower quality relationship with their mother than I did. My very first memory, probably when I was about three, was of running away. I stomped out of the house, heading down to the Egg-A-Day grocery a couple of blocks from the rental house in which me, my older sister, my Mom and another lady, whose role is sort of fuzzy in my mind, lived. It might have been that I was running away from my sister. I really hated her, from as soon as I laid eyes on her. But I blamed Mom for allowing the little bitch to run roughshod over our lives. Mom was a child-bride, married at fifteen, giving birth to her first child as a child herself, at sixteen. She was nineteen when I was born, and had divorced her husband by then, who was putatively also my father, though murmurings through the years, and my blazing red hair, give the probity of the official tale some measure of doubt. Proving in my mind that people rarely change, my sister is today as much or more selfish, self-centered and narcissistic as she was back then. It took decades for me to understand. I was like Charlie Brown to her Lucy, always trusting that she wouldn’t pull the ball away when I went to kick it. Unlike Charlie Brown, I finally gained the understanding, that the whole point of a relationship with her was to leave you feeling stupid for having trusted her, and now that Mom’s dead, I have seen my last of her. Still, the poor relationship with Mom hasn’t made me fat.
Night owls also tend to skip, or sleep through, breakfast, missing an important chance to get their metabolism going early, and they often snack far into the night. That sets the stage for “night-eating syndrome,” when people consume a significant portion of their daily intake after dinner, which is associated with obesity and diabetes.
I am definitely a night owl, and have had night-eating syndrome since I was a kid. Another of my first memories is of sneaking into the kitchen, careful to make sure that the cot on which I slept in that rental house didn’t creak when I got up, and stealing a chunk of government cheese out of the refrigerator, slinking back into bed to happily munch on it while the duo-matriarchs slumbered away in the only real bed we had. And just last night, I couldn’t sleep after getting pumped up over the football game, so at about 1:00 am, eased my way into the kitchen for a few more bites of the delicious beef-tips and rice leftover from the dinner I had cooked. I noticed an extra pound this morning when I weighed. No matter, I just ate a light breakfast. But living like that should make one fat, according to the article. It hasn’t happened yet. Stay tuned for hourly updates.
People who constantly put other people’s needs ahead of their own often become emotionally depleted and seek solace in eating. Eating coach Karen Koenig, author of “Nice Girls Finish Fat,” writes that many of the clients in her Sarasota, Fla., practice are “ultranurturing, self-effacing, unselfish, generous and caring to a fault.” Food works because it’s close, it doesn’t require burdening others, and it signals comfort and love. But because it doesn’t really fill the emotional void that givers have, they keep eating more and more.
I know, I know. Me, a curmudgeon, constantly putting other people’s needs ahead of my own? Indeed, it sounds crazy. But I’ve been doing just that for the last twenty-one years of my life. Exhibit A, if the court needs evidence, is the year and a half I recently spent solely focused on nurturing and caring for my son during his battle with leukemia. Having kids and a family means you necessarily put others before yourself. Doing your job properly as a parent means the family wins against the self every time family prerogatives and selfish impulses clash. It doesn’t mean you always like doing it, explaining in part my curmudgeonly demeanor. It just means that you do it. Still, doing your job as a parent or other caregiver does not an excuse for obesity make.
People who thrive on competition and deadline pressure may seem high-powered, but what powers them internally are adrenaline and cortisol. Those stress hormones supply quick bursts of energy in fight-or-flight situations, but when the alarm is unrelenting, they can they can cause health problems, including obesity.
I didn’t thrive on deadline pressure, and was only competing with myself to get the job done, but back during the real estate boom, where I’d have as many twelve and fourteen real estate closings to do in a day, the deadline pressure was enormous. In a day with twelve closings, each of which may last an hour or more, problems in any one closing have to be quickly resolved, else the whole day could go to hell rather quickly. I don’t miss those days, not even the piles of money I was making. But I dealt with the stress like the article advised, by running it off. I sometimes ran 40 and 50 miles a week.
The other two personality types, the “perfectionist” and the “multi-tasker” don’t much describe me. I am only a perfectionist so far as perfection is required in the premises (e.g., on a deed or settlement statement in a closing), and I multi-task only when I have to.
But all in all, according to the premises of the article, I should be a gelatinous blob of fat by now. Either something is wrong with the article, or something is wrong with me. The opening sentence to the article gives pause that perhaps it’s not me:
Losing weight is simple: Eat less and exercise more. Why that’s so difficult for so many people is embedded deep in the human psyche.
Also embedded in the human psyche is the idea that enough food is enough food; that food is not a drug, or a security blanket, or anything else, except nutrition for the body. The problem is not that one must overcome the human psyche to keep from getting fat. The problem is that getting fat requires ignoring the psyche, just as losing weight does. Gaining excessive weight requires intentionally ignoring the rumblings of the psyche to eat more than the body desires. Losing weight requires intentionally ignoring the body’s compulsion to never let go its gains, and to avoid pain so far as is possible. Obesity becomes a roller coaster ride of emotions untethered to deeply imbedded psychic impulses. No wonder people battling their weight seem to have neurotic personalities. As for my neuroses, I’ll have to look elsewhere for an explanation.