Nutrition - Food, weight, and body shape

Most people believe that nutrition and food are closely connected to weight and body shape. While this is true to a certain extent, it certainly does not represent the whole picture. A person's weight and body shape are not solely determined by how much a person eats or exercises. In fact, a person's body shape is determined most by the body shape of his or her parents. In addition, experts recently began questioning the role of weight and fat in relation to disease and illness. More needs to be studied, but researchers believe now that it's possible to be fit and healthy even if a person appears to be over-weight. In other words, having excess fat on the body does not automatically make a person unhealthy.

A Lesson in Genetics

Nearly 55 percent of adults are considered overweight or obese in America today. It is believed that when people eat more calories than their body uses, they gain weight. Simple as it may seem, not all people who are over-weight overeat. Most overweight teens do not eat more than their healthy weight peers do. The difference appears to lie in the level of activity. Genetics also can play a part. Genes are responsible for much of the way a person looks and acts. To a certain degree, they can also influence whether a person will be overweight or not. Although people may be able to improve their health by eating well and exercising, their body type and weight is dictated mostly by genetics.

Body type seems to be related to body weight. In the 1940s, scientist William H. Sheldon proposed a theory to characterize three basic body types. An endomorph is characterized by an increased proportion of body fat; a mesomorph by a muscular build; and an ectomorph by lack of much fat or muscle. An endomorph would have difficulty losing weight, have a soft body and round shape. The mesomorph would have a hard, muscular body and could gain or lose weight easily. An ectomorph would have a thin, delicate build and trouble gaining weight. Not every person will fit exactly into one category.

Having an excess of body fat can carry with it some health risk factors. Not only the amount of excess fat but the location of fat on a person's body is of importance. Women typically gain weight in their hips and buttocks giving them a pear shape. Men usually build up body fat around their bellies giving them an apple shape. Although this is not a hard and fast rule, there is evidence that people with fat in their abdomen, men or women, are more likely to develop many of the health problems associated with being over-weight or obese, such as heart disease and type-II diabetes.

People whose parents are obese tend to be overweight as well. Having parents who are overweight will increase a person's chance of being over-weight by 25 to 30 percent. Heredity does not destine anyone to be fat, but it can influence the amount of body fat and where fat is distributed on a person's body. To avoid serious health risks, a person who is genetically predisposed to obesity should be consistently careful about eating healthfully and exercising regularly.

The Body's Set Point

The set point theory of weight control holds that the body will defend a certain weight regardless of external factors. In other words, no matter how healthfully a person eats or how much a person may exercise, he or she remains right around the same weight. Unfortunately, many people who are overweight tend to concentrate only on losing the pounds when their focus should be to improve their health. Ultimately, fitness is more important to health than what a person weighs or the amount of body fat one has. Some individuals may not be overweight even though their weight may seem high for their height. This can be due to differences in body composition. Athletes with a lot of muscle, such as Olympic skier Picaboo Street, may weigh more than they appear, but they would never be considered overweight because muscle weighs more than fat. Ultimately, a person who exercises and eats well will naturally fall to his or her set point. Trying to fight this set point may lead to frustration, depression, and unhealthy weight management practices, such as fasting and dieting.

Body Image

Looking in the mirror—what does one see? Is it everything or is the focus just on trouble spots? Body image is how one sees oneself, and how one believes what others see, too. Body image can say a lot about one's mental and physical well-being.

A negative body image is when one doesn't like or doesn't feel satisfied with their body. Having a negative body image can be related to low self-esteem, depression, poor health habits, or a psychological disorder. It can negatively affect feelings, behaviors, interpersonal relationships, decisionmaking ability, and day-to-day living. It takes practice to accept one's body and understand that all aspects of appearance can't be controlled. Much of a person's appearance is due to heredity.

If a person has a negative body image, that person should strive for self-improvement but be realistic. Seeking positive supportive relationships is

Having a negative body image often leads a person to have a distorted view of his or her body weight. (Photograph by Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications. Reproduced by permission.)
Having a negative body image often leads a person to have a distorted view of his or her body weight. (Photograph by
Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications
. Reproduced by permission.)

helpful as well as remembering that a person's sense of self-worth must come from within. Associating with people who accept themselves, recognizing that the body is only part of oneself, and focusing on positive aspects of one's personality are helpful. It's also important to practice positive self-talk often and give oneself credit for worthy accomplishments.

Food and Feelings

From the day people enter the world they have an emotional connection to food. Eating can be an emotional experience. Many people eat in response to their emotions—such as being stressed out, tired, or bored—rather than in response to internal cues that they are hungry. This is called emotional eating. People also eat in response to other external cues such as time of day, location, or social situations. People with whom we live or socialize, the places in which we carry on our lives, and our emotions largely control our eating.

"Normal" eating is defined as eating when real hunger is present and eating until one is satisfied, without feelings of guilt or becoming uncomfortably full. Normal eating is flexible and depends on internal cues to regulate it, but it also depends on good food choices to ensure good nutrition.

From birth many people are programmed to eat at certain times of the day, given food as rewards for good behavior or a job well done, or associate foods with certain holidays or social events. Many people associate eating with other behaviors such as watching television. They may find themselves frequently snacking while watching television even though they are not really hungry, because it's what they always do. And so eating "habits" are formed. Eating habits such as these can lead to overeating or eating the wrong foods. Many health experts agree that changing negative eating habits to healthier ones can help a person improve their health.


Eating disorders are dangerous psychological (relating to the mind) illnesses that affect millions of people, especially young women and girls. The most widely known eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, but other eating-related disorders, such as binge-eating, exist as well. People suffering from eating disorders battle life-threatening obsessions (constant thoughts) with food and unhealthy thoughts about their body weight and shape. If untreated, these disorders can lead to serious bodily damage or even death. Recovery from an eating disorder is possible, though it is a difficult process that should be done under a doctor's supervision. The first steps toward recovery are for the sufferer to accept that there is a problem and show a willingness to focus on his or her feelings rather than on food and weight.

For more information on eating disorders, the causes and the treatments, please see Chapter 13: Eating Disorders in Volume 3 of this set.

In order to begin to change a bad food habit, a person must recognize it first. The reason many overeat or eat more than they need is because they don't recognize negative food behaviors. Experts recommend that people identify their food behaviors by keeping a food diary. A food diary is a record of the food people eat, what they were doing at the time, and how they felt. This exercise will tell people about themselves, their temptations and the emotional states that encourage them to eat and otherwise ignore internal signs of hunger.

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