Los Angeles resident Kathleen Mulcahy has been fighting with her weight for 55 years.
“My parents had a baby, a son, and he died at birth. I was 7, and I think that was the time I started gaining weight. My mother died when I was 12 very suddenly, and then my weight just escalated. By the time I got out of high school, I weighed about 260 pounds (118 kg),” Mulcahy said.
She is not alone.
WATCH: Global Obesity Battle: What You Eat and How You Think
Fat, salt, sugar
The problem of obesity worldwide has tripled since 1975, according to the World Health Organization. This is not just a problem in high-income countries such as the United States. There is a growing number of people who are overweight and obese in low- and middle-income countries. Being overweight has been connected to more deaths globally than being underweight.
“Fast foods, transnational corporations, soft drink companies going into these developing countries are having a very huge influence on the overweight and obesity epidemic, because they are adding calories and processed foods, salt and sugar into the diet that these people have not normally been eating,” said Dana Hunnes, assistant adjunct professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Fielding School of Public Health.
People’s lifestyles are also changing in developing countries.
“As people urbanize and make more money and have more sedentary lives, they’re also putting on weight and following the pattern of the United States,” Hunnes said.
Psychotherapist Deena Solomon said there is also another reason why people are gaining weight globally.
“People are moving away from their family of origin. They don’t have a support system that is going to help them also manage and have relationships as options for dealing with stress, so people are turning to food,” Solomon said.
While fad diets may help with quick weight loss, keeping off the weight is more of a challenge.
“At sustaining that weight loss, the studies overwhelmingly show that plant-based diets are good long term,” Hunnes said.
However, if going vegetarian is too extreme, eating less meat will also help, she said.
Instead of focusing on what is eaten, Solomon helps people maintain weight loss by working with the mind to change a person’s eating behavior. She said she weighed 224 pounds (102 kg) and has kept off 70 pounds (32 kg) for more than 30 years. Solomon authored a book on weight management and has been helping clients like Mulcahy be more self-aware. A key part of her method is a journal, where overeaters write down everything they eat before they eat.
“So, that awareness, that sense of conscientiousness, becomes more powerful than the immediate gratification of food. But you have to learn it. It has to become a habit,” Solomon said.
It worked for Mulcahy, who has sustained her current weight for almost three years.
“You get such a sense of accomplishment, a sense of power and efficacy, you can apply it to everywhere,” Mulcahy said.
Psychology of food
“The way we think about food, our psychology about food is incredibly important when it comes to diet,” Hunnes said.
How different cultures think about different types of food also plays a role in what people eat and their weight.
“We know that a Western diet, one high in animal products, does not lay out a healthy foundation for Type 2 diabetes, for cancers, for heart disease, for a myriad of health problems. Eating that much meat, eating that much animal products, is just not healthy. And eating your traditional diet full of fruits and vegetables and legumes and fiber really is where we (the West) aspire to be,” Hunnes said.