Everybody knows of at least ten miracle cures that promise weight loss within a few days. In the latest episode of the Messzelátó podcast we asked Associate Professor and psychologist Dr. Attila Forgács about how weight loss has become a consumer product, the psychological background of eating and lifestyle movements such as veganism.
Author: Tünde Taxner / Cover photo: Attila Forgács
Read the original article at the website Közgazdász Online student blog.
The podcast is accessible at this link.
The belly was suspicious
Human history is a series of struggles for sustenance. The focus was always on gaining weight. In “Hyppolit the Lackey”, the second Hungarian talkie, dieting is still a ridiculous fad in Buda, the Renaissance ideal of beauty is a woman with a full figure. When did our relationship with food and our bodies change so much and weight loss become our real desire?
“Once abundance comes, there is a permanent and massive way for people to grow fat. This is when the trend is reversed, mainly in the upper social strata, and people try to watch their weight,” says lecturer at Corvinus University and a major Hungarian researcher on the psychology of eating Dr. Attila Forgács.
So our attitude to eating changed with the advent of abundance, after the change of regime. We fought for food in the 20th century, just think of János Kis of Móricz or the post-war ticket system. “In environments where there is a deficit, we will not get obese, genetics or not. The history of our civilisation has been such that there were hardly any fat people. It is very difficult, for example, to find a fat man among the Hungarian kings and nobles. We can name a few, one is Döbrögi, the goose thief, another is the Turkish Pasha, but the Petőfis, the János Aranys were not at all bulging.”
Malnutrition and tuberculosis were a serious problem in our country even after World War II. “If someone had a belly in the fifties, the black cars would come and look around their attic. What is he hiding, maybe he slaughtered Dezső the pig?” explains Dr. Attila Forgács in the Messzelátó podcast. However, the number of obese people in Hungary doubled after the fall of communism, and since then we have become a European leader in this respect. “In the Kádár era, there was a turnaround called goulash communism: there was something to eat,” the psychologist says, referring to Hungary’s ‘happy barrack’ situation, which he says marked a turnaround in our attitude to eating.
Weight loss has become a consumer product
In the podcast, the gastro-psychologist explains how he started collecting ads for dieting. They appeared mainly after the change of regime, in parallel with commercial television. “I started scanning them… I gave up at 1200 ads. No other product, service or idea in modern society is sold in so many different ways. It’s easy for me as a researcher to look at the communication of how to sell something in so many ways that doesn’t work. This is the pinnacle of creativity. But health science and dietetics are facing a major challenge.”
Obesitology, the field of the discipline of obesity research, has existed for more than thirty years. “We have been trying to understand the cause of obesity for more than thirty years, and for thirty years the trends have been getting worse,” says the researcher. “More and more people are carrying excess weight at a younger and younger age. If even a single weight loss ad could work on a sustained, mass scale, it could reverse world trends.” If we want to lose weight so badly, and try to sell weight loss and its methods in so many ways, why don’t we succeed?
Someone inside us keeps on eating
At the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid is our calorie requirement as a physiological need – that’s how much we need to eat to keep our bodies functioning well. “But the pyramid of need is tipping because we keep eating. Food has not only a caloric value, but also a psychological, social and even more emotional value,” says the psychologist. And the emotional value often overrides the need for calories – think of those late-night binges, exam periods or post-breakup ice creams.
Our bodies have been well fed for a long time, but someone inside us keeps eating, and it’s very, very hard to stop.
The psychological background of eating is based on deep-rooted experiences. “I believe that overeating is based on millions of years of evolutionary experience that crises are followed by famines,” says Dr Attila Forgács. “How interesting that our first coping response to the coronavirus was what? Oops, we buy all the flour and yeast at Aldi because we need to stock up. This is a shining example of not a conscious behaviour, but a very ancient, emotional-inductive behavioural automatism.” According to the researcher, the last seventy years have not been enough to override this response, as humanity has been surviving a steady stream of eating crises.
What does a paleo-vegetarian eat?
The roots of vegetarianism and veganism go back a long way. “Pythagoras was the leader of a small sect of people who did not eat meat,” says the researcher, adding that there were also vegan societies at the end of the 19th century, for example, most of the avant-garde artists did not eat meat. For Kodály and Bartók, it was part of a lifestyle reform, and the anti-meat-eating movements had important spiritual and mental history implications.
Modern-day sects today seem to rally around eating. Dogma, which used to be spiritual, is sinking to the biological level: what can I eat? We wish someone would tell us and we will stick to it.
That is why there are also trends against plant-eating. “I had a patient who was a paleo-vegetarian. I said, what do you eat? Well, what would you eat? They live on broccoli.” This is orthorexia nervosa, healthy food mania or addiction, explains the psychologist. These people are driven by how much, what, exactly when and how they eat.
According to Dr. Attila Forgács, this is also a sign that humanity is trying to find an alternative way of eating in the era of mass obesity. “Many of these current eating behaviours are described as disordered, but I’m not sure they will stay that way – there may be a key to survival in some of them.”
How to lose weight?
“The revolution of eating is not liberating, like other revolutions, but restricting. It’s about what not to eat” – many diets offer different solutions, but let’s face it, it rarely works to lose the extra kilograms in a week (forgacs_attila.jpg)
“The problem is with rapid weight loss, with the attitude that I will lose weight by Friday. The yo-yoing, or re-fattening, rate is 40-90% within a year at this time. We should lose weight at the same rate as we have gained weight. Obesity does not happen on the day after Christmas Day. Obesity is usually 5-6 kilos a year, which we only notice when we change clothes in winter and summer. That extra comes from eating a hundred kilocalories a day, whether it’s a bagel or a small patty.”
According to the psychologist, cycling can be a permanent solution. “This hundred kilocalories should be noticed – it can be lost by moving. That’s two thousand steps a day: walking up to the third floor, walking one stop more or cycling instead of public transport.” He also cycles to Corvinus despite the big city traffic.
I am convinced that we should bring moving back into our lives.