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Special to msnbc.com
updated 11/6/2005 4:25:08 PM ET 2005-11-06T21:25:08

Whether you count the number of people unhappy with their shape, the percentage on a diet, or the billions of dollars spent on diet programs, books, foods and supplements, the figures all show that our society has become more obsessed with weight in the past decade or two than ever before.

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Some argue that we should indeed be paying more attention to our weight to solve the obesity epidemic that threatens our health. Yet research shows that an obsession with becoming thin, contrary to what you might expect, creates more of a health problem.

Obesity researchers often refer to our current culture as a "toxic environment." High-fat, high-sugar food is available everywhere we go. Eating low-nutrient, high-calorie food has become part of how we entertain ourselves, whether we are alone or with others. At the same time, recreation, housekeeping and transportation have all become more sedentary activities.

Yet our culture still values thinness tremendously. Kathy Kater, a psychotherapist who has developed national programs for teaching children about a healthy body image, says that many people today have the sense that they are valued more for how they look than for who they are, and that being thin is essential for the "right" look.

Kater points out that if any of the popular diets of the past 20 years really worked, we wouldn't have so many people overweight now. According to Kater, when we pin our hopes on a fad diet, we are trying to do the impossible. Research shows that when we try to control our eating with external rules, our obsession and preoccupation with food increases. In America where food is so widely available, that's a recipe for overeating.

Instead of making weight loss a goal, Kater advocates focusing on choices that enhance health. She says it's all right to hope for weight loss, but when people consider weight loss the goal, they almost always give up healthier eating and more exercise, if these good habits don't bring the desired weight loss.

Kater's message for how to improve your body image and handle any weight concern is spelled out at the Web site BodyImageHealth. Her principles emphasize that there are biological limitations to how much we can change size and shape. We should focus instead on choices with health as the goal, resisting society's pressures to be thin, lead sedentary lives and overeat for entertainment.

Coping with stress
Some people may need to do more than build their self-image. Laurel Mellin, a registered dietitian affiliated with the University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine, contends that the stress and isolation in today's culture cause many to feel "out of balance." Such people may never have learned how to nurture themselves and set personal limits. Stress drives them to cope in external ways like eating.

Even if these people aim for health instead of weight loss, they may have trouble establishing healthy habits because they use food to indulge themselves and escape from pressure. Mellin contends that if people don't resolve the underlying problem, they can go from one excess to another, such as eating, smoking, or shopping.

The ultimate answer is changing your response to stress. Mellin's nonprofit Institute for Health Solutions teaches people how to nurture themselves and set reasonable limits, so that they no longer turn to external sources for coping.

The Journal of the American Dietetic Association recently reported on a small group of people who underwent this training. More than a year-and-a-half after the end of an average 18-week program, participants had improvements in a broad range of mental and physical health functions, as well as weight loss.

The study needs to be repeated with more people to test the usefulness of such programs.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

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