08/26/2011 05:25 pm ET | Updated Oct 26, 2011

Why Obesity Doesn't Fit in a Bento Box

Do you know what a bento box is? It's a Japanese lunch box that has many compartments. Different foods can be placed in each compartment so that they fit in neatly, do not overlap and never touch each other. I often think that, as a society, we want ideas about obesity and weight loss to fit neatly into a bento box; as if eating right and exercising are all that is needed to lose weight and keep it off.

The "Bento Box Attitude" thinks that if you can't sustain weight loss by these two principles alone then you must be lazy and lack discipline. Any ideas that fall outside of this box are not considered valid and we don't need -- or want -- to deal with them. If it's really that easy, why is permanent weight loss still so elusive? Is it because we want to fit obesity into this little bento box? What happens when we realize that it doesn't quite fit?

Unfortunately, obesity is not meant to be tucked neatly into a compartmentalized box. It's not as easy as "eat less and exercise more." The cravings come from somewhere and there are reasons why they exist. So much of the problem of obesity is above the stomach. It really has everything to do with the heart and the brain. We cherish our foods so much that we choose to shut down the brain temporarily so that we can soothe our heart. This form of temporary amnesia is what we call denial.

Denial is a difficult concept to understand because those who have never been obese sometimes cannot comprehend why anyone could "let themselves go." And many of those who are obese don't want to believe that they are. Putting our heads in the sand will not make this denial go away. We need to understand the problem in order to solve it.

Do we wish for a utopian society where food does not exist and everyone takes a pill for nutrition once a day? Where food is no longer an intricate part of our culture? Such a society, as described by Laura Riley, Food Critic for the St. Petersburg Times, as utopian as it may seem, would not offer us a reprieve from the daily temptation of choosing food to medicate our sorrows.

While exercising and eating better are important, they are but one spoke of the weight loss wheel. I believe that obesity is really a cycle that begins when we learn to medicate our anxiety and depression with food. This overeating eventually leads to guilt as we gain weight and start to experience feelings of failure. The guilt in turn adds to the anxiety that we already have and plunges us deeper into depression, which we comfort with what else? Food. We then find ourselves stuck in the "Cycle of Obesity."

By using this Cycle of Obesity as a roadmap, we can see that if we just treat the overeating portion of the cycle (diet and exercise) we may lose weight, but we are bound to gain it back because we never resolved the emotional triggers that may have made us eat in the first place. Therefore, in order to beat obesity and keep the weight off, we must fix every part of this cycle -- not just the diet and exercise parts.

What causes your stress, anxiety and depression? What guilt do you carry? Some of these issues may have even been cradled since childhood. Ignore these and you are destined to repeat the Cycle of Obesity. Once more, every time you repeat the cycle, your guilt increases as your feelings of failure cause you to overeat even more. I believe that this is why people often gain the weight back and "then some" after going on a diet.

Learning what these triggers are seems like a difficult challenge, but anyone suffering from severe weight problems -- who is not in denial -- knows what his or her triggers are. These triggers are major life stressors such as the loss of a loved one, a very stressful job that leaves no room for personal time, loneliness, an unhappy marriage, a lifelong lack of self-worth and/or extreme perfectionism. Other common causes include childhood sexual, physical and/or mental abuse. By being honest with yourself you can identify the triggers and work out a formula to defeat them.

The Cycle of Obesity offers a good explanation for emotional eating. It also explains why, when you feel like using food for comfort, simply taking a walk, exercising, reading a book, drinking water or other immediate remedies, will have minimal or short-term effects. You have to get to the root of the matter and only by doing something to treat the triggers will you completely break the cycle and conquer your emotional eating.

Here are four things that you can do right now to get started in breaking the Cycle of Obesity:

  1. Write down and identify the major stressors that are causing you to eat. Be completely honest with yourself. Seek appropriate professional counseling if necessary.
  1. Learn to accept failure. If you fall, get yourself up and try again. Do not expect success on your first attempts at anything. Find out what caused you to fail so you don't repeat the same mistake again.
  1. Recruit someone you trust completely to help you with your journey.
  1. Set shorter, more attainable goals for yourself. As you accomplish one goal, move on to the next one. Success builds upon success.

You cannot tuck your weight loss problem neatly into a little box and wonder why it does not go away. To conquer obesity you must understand its root causes and deal with them. Breaking the Cycle of Obesity is definitely possible and it allows you to live the authentic life that you desire. Just remember, the solution is not "one size fits all" and it certainly can't be found in a Bento Box.

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