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Why We Feel Fat and What You Can Do About It

July 9, 2021
By: Aiden Mehak, Therapist, PhD Candidate

You often hear people talking about feeling fat. But when you stop to think about it, fat isn’t actually a feeling. Joy, anger, sadness, and fear are all examples of emotions – temporary mind states that relate to our current thoughts, circumstances, and interactions with other people. The word fat describes a physical characteristic. If you reflect on times you’ve “felt” fat, you will probably notice these feelings come and go much faster than your body weight can change. We know that fat isn’t a feeling and “feeling” fat changes too quickly to reflect our true weight. So, why is it that so many of us use “fat” to describe a feeling and understand exactly what others mean when they tell us that they feel fat?

Therapists working with people with eating disorders have puzzled about how to respond to their clients’ fat “feelings” for at least 50 years (Bruch, 1978). One leading treatment for eating disorders, cognitive behaviour therapy, helps clients to address this feeling because it can get in the way of treatment progress. This is because when we “feel” fat, it’s typically experienced as uncomfortable or negative, so our automatic response is to try to do something to change it. Especially in people who are struggling with eating, this can mean engaging in eating disorder behaviours, like decreasing calorie intake to try to “feel” thinner or binge eating to distract from the negative “feeling” (Fairburn, 2008; Mehak & Racine, 2020). What we didn’t know until recently is just how common it is for people who don’t have eating disorders to “feel” fat, too. Recent research shows that most people have “felt” fat in their lifetime, whether or not they have any disordered eating (Cooper et al., 2007).

So what’s “feeling” fat all about if it’s not a feeling? When we work to help clients with “feeling” fat in therapy, we usually think of it as a substitute for other unpleasant feelings. If we are having several negative emotions all at once – for example, guilt, sadness, and grief – we might have trouble knowing what to do with this barrage of negative feelings. So as a way of coping, our mind combines them all into one experience – that’s where we get the “feeling” of fatness. Sometimes “feeling” fat can be triggered by physical sensations, too. These tend to be physical experiences that draw our attention to our bodies, like feeling hot and sweaty on the Métro, with the movement of the train drawing our attention to how some parts of our bodies might jiggle (Fairburn, 2008).

Luckily, by reading this, you’re already well on your way to using the skills that we teach clients to reduce “feeling” fat. One of the most important parts of dealing with this “feeling” is learning about it. Once you have this knowledge, try using these tips to handle “feeling” fat when it comes up:

  1. Track when you “feel” fat and how fat you “feel” using a notes app or small notebook for a few days. You can rate the intensity using a scale of 1 – 10, with 1 being no fat “feelings” at all and 10 being the fattest you’ve ever felt. Try to record it as soon as you notice because it can be hard to remember the experience accurately even a few hours later.
  2. Reflect on the times you have “felt” fat and see if you can find patterns. Does it happen after arguments with your partner or when you’re feeling stressed at work? Does it happen right after you eat certain types of food? You will probably find at least a few themes when you look at the experiences together. If you tracked your “feelings” like suggested in Tip 1, think of this as research and use it as a starting off point for your reflection.
  3. When you find that you’re starting to “feel” fat, ask yourself: What am I really feeling right now? This is what tips 1 and 2 set us up for: when we identify the common things that make us “feel” fat, we’re armed with a list of ideas when that “feeling” comes up. If you can figure out what the underlying problem is, brainstorm ideas to address that.
  4. Take a deep breath and remember that “feeling” fat doesn’t mean your body is actually changing. Even if you can’t figure out exactly what’s causing you to “feel” fat in every instance, remember that it isn’t going to last forever.

It might be difficult to catch yourself in the moments you “feel” fat, especially at first. That’s normal! This is probably the first time you’re trying to challenge this experience and peek at the feelings that are underneath it. Like any skill, it gets easier and more natural with practice. Don’t expect perfection and be compassionate with yourself if you slip into old habits.

references

(1) Bruch, H. (1978). The golden cage: The enigma of anorexia nervosa. Harvard.

(2) Cooper, M. J., Deepak, K., Grocutt, E., & Bailey, E. (2007). The experience of ‘feeling fat’ in women with anorexia nervosa, dieting and non-dieting women: An exploratory study. European Eating Disorders Review, 15(5), 366–372. https://doi.org/doi:10.1002/erv.785

(3) Fairburn, C. G. (2008). Cognitive behavior therapy and eating disorders. Guilford Press.

(4) Mehak, A., & Racine, S. E. (2020). Understanding “feeling fat” and its underlying mechanisms: The importance of multi-method measurement. International Journal of Eating Disorders. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.23336

 

About the author

Aiden Mehak is a doctoral student in McGill University’s Clinical Psychology program who holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Ryerson University and is an intern therapist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.
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