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‘Why’ we eat may be a key to fatness

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PROVO — America is as fat as it is rich.

According to a recent Atlantic Monthly article, the United States includes more fat people than any other nation — 64 percent of American adults are overweight and about nine million are "morbidly obese," or 100 pounds or more overweight.

The reason may lie in our motivations for eating, says Steve Hawks, associate professor of health sciences at Brigham Young University. In a recent study, Hawks found that cultural attitudes toward body shape and food greatly impact obesity levels in the United States and the rest of the world.

His conclusion? Why we eat may be as important as what we eat.

"Americans primarily associate food with health objectives such as being thin and least with the simple pleasure of a satisfying meal," Hawks said.

The French and the Belgians, on the other hand, eat for pleasure, while the Japanese fall somewhere between the two extremes. Coincidently, the French, who eat about 200 calories a day less than Americans and do more walking, are slimmer.

For his study Hawks surveyed about 1,200 college students in the United States and Japan. He found that the Japanese, who also value thinness, are not as likely as Americans to eat out of boredom or emotional need.

The Japanese have a more diverse diet than Americans and do not focus as much on restrictive dieting to become thin, Hawks found. Ironically, the premium Americans place on dieting and thinness is a factor in the increase of obesity and eating disorders in the United States.

Hawks says avoiding fatty foods to the extreme can cause Americans to feel high levels of physical and emotional deprivation.

"This heavy degree of restrictive dieting in America may actually lead to increased obesity," Hawks said. "The body reacts to dieting by storing more fat than normal and by significantly decreasing the number of calories burned during normal activities."

The priority Americans place on thinness should be replaced by an emphasis on fitness and wellness, Hawks said.

His study also found that Americans who think weight loss is important, or think a lot about dieting, are more likely to eat for emotional reasons, a precursor to more serious eating disorders.

The study also found that while Japanese woman value thinness and diet at a high level, they are not as likely as American women to deprive themselves of favorite foods.

E-mail: jhyde@desnews.com