Do you feel anxious about gaining weight? If this feeling is starting to dominate your life, you may be dealing with obesophobia. Keep reading to learn more about obesophobia, how to identify it, and how to manage it.
What is Obesophobia?
Obesophobia, also known as pocrescophobia, is an extreme fear of weight gain. It’s a specific phobia disorder, which is a form of anxiety. The intense fear of gaining weight can occur in people of all different body sizes and ages, though it’s most common in adolescent females.1
Many people are concerned about weight gain and engage in frequent dieting. This is not the same as obesophobia. A person with obesophobia has an irrational fear of gaining weight and will take extreme measures to avoid situations that trigger this fear.1
When exposed to trigger situations or thoughts, a person with obesophobia will experience anxiety symptoms and may even have a panic attack.2 This fear interferes with essential functions of daily life. Examples of potential triggers include avoiding high-calorie foods, turning down social situations involving food, or refusing to weigh oneself.
Obesophobia may be confused with body dysmorphia, but these are two different conditions. A person with body dysmorphia looks in the mirror and cannot accurately perceive their body size (i.e., they may be underweight but view themselves as overweight). A person with obesophobia doesn’t have a distorted view of their body weight; they are primarily concerned with the possibility of gaining weight.1
While obesophobia is a symptom of many eating disorders, it is not considered an eating disorder on its own. However, the fear of gaining weight can cause a person to significantly restrict their food intake and become underweight or malnourished. Fear of eating due to weight gain can lead to a restrictive eating disorder, such as anorexia.1
Since phobias are a form of anxiety disorder, a person with obesophobia may experience anxiety symptoms at the thought of gaining weight or if they do gain weight.
- Rapid heart rate.
- Shortness of breath.
- Nausea or upset stomach.
- Dizziness or lightheadedness.3
A person with an extreme fear of weight gain may also experience symptoms of disordered eating or eating disorders.1 Screening for an eating disorder is essential if any of the following symptoms are present:
- Fear of eating due to weight gain.
- Intense restriction of food and explicitly avoiding high-calorie foods.
- Rigid dieting, calorie counting, or fasting.
- Binge eating.
- Compensatory behaviors, such as purging, over-exercise, or misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or diet pills.
- Rapid weight loss.
What Causes a Fear of Weight Gain?
The fear of weight gain does not have one clear cause. Instead, it is likely a combination of factors that cause this phobia.
Societal and Cultural Norms
Unfortunately, it’s common for people with larger bodies to be discriminated against or treated poorly. This is known as weight stigma or weight bias.1 Weight stigma can fuel the fear of gaining weight in many people because they want to avoid being treated poorly or looked down on.
In addition, negative messaging in the media around weight and size is very harmful. There is a multi-billion dollar diet industry that promotes the pursuit of thinness. Over time, these messages become internalized, and we start believing the false narrative that thin is always “good” and fat is always “bad.”
A person's past experiences can contribute to a fear of weight gain.4 A person with obesophobia may have been bullied about their weight as an adolescent, which can be classified as a traumatic experience. Another example is a child growing up hearing a parent frequently speak negatively about their weight, the child’s weight, or other people’s size.
There is evidence of a genetic component to anxiety disorders, phobias, and eating disorders.4 This is not well understood, and it is unknown how much genetics influence the development of obesophobia.
Diagnosis can be challenging because symptoms of obesophobia often overlap with eating disorders and other anxiety disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.
The DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for specific phobias are used to diagnose obesophobia, which include:
- Intense and irrational fear of a specific situation or object.
- Exposure to the phobia causes instant fear and anxiety.
- The fear is disproportionate to the actual danger of the situation.
- Avoidance of the phobia.
- The phobia leads to significantly impaired functioning.
- The fear is ongoing, lasting at least six months.2
How to Manage a Fear of Weight Gain
If you are struggling with obesophobia, chances are you are aware there is a problem. It can be hard to manage these fears on your own, so it’s important to seek help. If left unchecked, obesophobia can lead to an eating disorder.1
Exposure therapy is the most common treatment for specific phobias. This form of psychotherapy is done by gradually exposing the individual to the source of their fear. It is done over and over across numerous sessions until the individual can engage with their triggers without feeling fear or anxiety. Meditation and deep breathing strategies can be learned to help with this process.5
In the case of obesophobia, exposure therapy usually involves exposure to images and thoughts involving weight gain. For example, this could include thinking about the idea of eating a high-calorie meal or the idea of gaining a few pounds. This type of therapy must be led by a trained professional; do not attempt exposure therapy on your own, it could worsen or intensify your fears.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Another type of psychotherapy beneficial for treating obesophobia is cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT can help you change any problematic thoughts and behaviors that fuel your phobia.6
Eating Disorder Treatment
The extreme fear of gaining weight can be a symptom of an eating disorder, like anorexia or bulimia. If obesophobia coexists with an eating disorder, it will be important to seek eating disorder treatment. Treatment depends on the severity of the symptoms and disordered eating habits but generally involves working with a doctor, a therapist, and a registered dietitian.
Nourish Can Help
If you are struggling with obesophobia or fear of gaining weight and are unsure where to start, Nourish can help. Nourish offers virtual nutrition counseling with registered dietitians trained in eating disorder treatment. The visits are covered by insurance and are easy to access.
Our dietitians use a weight-neutral approach to care, emphasizing health-promoting behaviors and a healthy relationship with food. Along with the appropriate psychotherapy, nutrition counseling can play a valuable role in treating obesophobia and other disordered eating concerns.
Get started with Nourish today.
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