The Connection Between Fat and Fear

Hey tbztyyssti
readers — Just got this note and I found it revelatory! – L.


Dear Free-Range Kids: The ability to get very scared of danger that strikes around us has probably been extremely important throughout evolution. I would say that it is a basic instinct. Having media triggering this for issues that have no relevance to our own survival is one of our time’s biggest challenges.
It’s not too different from overeating and obesity. We need to see that our bodies and our instincts do not always give us the right information.
Lenore here: What a great analogy! Throughout most of history, when food was hard to come by, we HAD to eat everything available and store our fat. It was a matter of survival! It was GOOD that our bodies grabbed and hung onto every calorie available.
Likewise, before we had mass media, we HAD to pay attention to anything scary or threatening that we saw.  If we watched a tiger attack, we knew there was a tiger right in our area, and that we had to do everything we could to avoid it.  And if we saw a friend die from eating a poisonous berry, that was an important lesson, too: Don’t eat the red berries! Evolution made sure that our brains took note of every terrifying event and seared it on our brains.
But now, both food and scary stories come to us from all over. The problem is: we have yet to evolve to process things differently! Now we DON’T need to eat every available calorie. Now we DON’T need to adjust our lives according to every scary thing  we see.
Until very recently in the history of the world, any tragedy we witnessed was close at hand. Now with the tragedies from near and far, common and rare, piped into our living rooms, we still react with the immediacy that nature intended: Make sure that never happens to us! We react that way, even when the incidents are extremely irrelevant to our own lives.
Learning NOT to react to this overload of stimuli is a new skill we have to acquire, and it’s one of the things we practice here. (See the story below and many others.) Good luck to us all as we attempt to evolve. – L

Try not to freak out.

20 Responses to The Connection Between Fat and Fear

  1. Zozimus October 14, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

    What an incisive comment. We’re stuck with all kinds of detritus from our evolutionary background. For example, we’re terrified of heights – useful for our arboreal ancestors, maybe, but not so dangerous these days. Acrophobia is one of the biggies, but “velociphobia”, a term I just invented this instant meaning ‘fear of speed’, is not. We love going fast in our cars, although it is one of the biggest killers out there. Our fears have no relation to reality.

    Ever notice how so-called heroes never talk about fear? They talk about necessity, meaning they faced reality and realised they could deal with it on some level. Fear seems to me like its definition is *not* facing reality. Fears are never as bad when you finally face them; it always seems so petty after the fact. To me, these days, when we’re not facing tigers and bears every day, the feeling of fear should be a weathervane telling us where we *have* to make a conscious effort to face reality. It’s a mostly-outdated bit of evolutionary software that desperately needs upgrading, but we still seem to be stuck reacting to a DOS prompt in smartphone world.

  2. Andrea Jones October 14, 2012 at 5:20 pm #

    One way to deal with the fear being piped into 24/7 on cable: do NOT watch TV news, and if you are too fearful, don’t watch crime dramas (CSI, etc.). Just stop for your sanity. Helped me.

  3. dancing on thin ice October 14, 2012 at 7:35 pm #

    Something heard years ago but made clearer after facing a real life and death situation


  4. CrazyCatLady October 14, 2012 at 9:17 pm #

    I was listening to a podcast of Radio Lab today, and they were talking about the X Prize (for launching private spacecraft into space) and a reporter asked the guy in charge if this wasn’t too reckless, after all, he was encouraging people to do dangerous things that could get them killed.

    He replied that exploration has always been dangerous, and that he was very grateful to the many, many people who came to the colonies early on despite the dangers, and to the people who crossed the continent early on, many of whom lost their lives on the way.

    I wanted to smack the reporter who asked that. Lindenberg would not have flown across the ocean had there not been a prize involved. Life becomes stagnant if some people do not face danger and try new things. Our free range kids will be some of those people who will go out and expand our horizons.

  5. Lollipoplover October 14, 2012 at 11:50 pm #

    Today’s tigers consist of rush hour traffic, missing a deadline, bouncing a check or watching the news about child abductions like they happen everyday. Nonetheless, these modern day tigers trigger the activation of our fight or flight system as if our physical survival was threatened. On a daily basis, toxic stress hormones flow into our bodies for events that pose no real threat to our physical survival.

  6. LadyTL October 15, 2012 at 1:17 am #

    The only problem with this is this ignores that food is not the sole source of obesity. It ignores genetic influences, medical influences and mental influences. It’s also ignoring the fact that obesity has not been definitively proven as bad in all cases. Given our culture has spent most of a century telling people eating less will make you thin and it isn’t working, now more than ever, I don’t see how clumsy metaphors are supposed to help with either obesity or with fear.

  7. Yan Seiner October 15, 2012 at 1:44 am #

    I read an interesting book some time ago… The guy makes the point that in the summer we would be active (long days, hunting, gathering, etc) and we’d get fat in the fall for the coming winter. In the winter we would sleep a lot (short days, less food) and we’d lose a lot of that fat. In the spring we would start over.

    In his view this was a normal cycle. He also made the point that stress very often went the same way; in the summer stress was related to predators, in the winter it was related to famine. So summer stress was short duration but intense, in the winter it would be longer but lower intensity (will we starve before spring?)

    Today we have year-round “summer” – there’s never a cycle where we rest and digest and lose fat; we just turn on the lights, eat, and get fatter. The same with stress; we always have long-term winter type stress, reinforced by the constant barrage of negative information we get. Bad economy, child fears – abductions, college, retirement, and so on.

    So we never get a chance to recover, never get a chance to really go through our cycle. I’m not sure how “scientific” this book was; the second half the author really loses all touch with reality, but it resonates with me.

  8. Donald October 15, 2012 at 2:46 am #

    The brain is designed to react quickly whenever it gets very stressed. We instantly engage in fight or flight and bypass the section of our brain that’s logical. This is because thinking logically is too slow. This survival mode worked well in the past. However things are different now. We no longer get chased by a bear, pillaged by Vikings or run over by a chariots. Now days our stressors are things like peak hour traffic, mother in law visits, and internet connections.

    However, our brain is still hardwired to bypass logic whenever we get stressed!

    Being raised as a free range kid will help develop your character so that you don’t get stressed as easily. Conversely, being raised as a bubble wrapped kid will make you get stressed more easily.

    A person from 1219 can be stressed out because they may be invaded by Genghis Khan. However, a person from 2012 that believes that she is fat and is worried what everybody else thinks of her can reach the same stress level! Therefore, logic can automatically be overridden!

  9. Andy October 15, 2012 at 7:00 am #

    @LadyTL “Given our culture has spent most of a century telling people eating less will make you thin and it isn’t working.”

    But people today do not eat less then people before. We eat more. Telling something does not make people thin, hearing the advice does not make people thing, doing that thing could make people thin.

    Plus, most of a century was spend not saying that you have to eat less, it was spend saying that you have to eat next to no fat in order to be thin. People ate less fat, but they ate also a lot more in total quantity and a way lot more sugar. This is the advice that was most likely bad.

  10. AG October 15, 2012 at 9:25 am #

    @LadyLT That’s not really the point. The point is that our bodies evoled to stockpile fat in case of need (a good evolutionaly trait when food is scarce) and our brain evolved to favour fatty and sugary foods which provide us with the necessary nutirents to run your body for the least amount of actual food eaten. These are traits that are unnecessary for most people in the first world today.

    Whatever the causes of obesity (and there are many), we do not anymore live in a time of scarcity where any bit of extra fat storage in our bodies might mean the difference between life and death during a harsh winter.

  11. Sean October 15, 2012 at 12:46 pm #

    I would add that brain research shows you can rewire your brain to ‘be’ different. Of course, research also shows that just telling yourself or ‘knowing’ what action you should take does not mean you will take it. It takes time and effort to really change yourself, but it can be done. The first step is seeing fears for what they are…

  12. a October 15, 2012 at 2:39 pm #

    I think it should be possible to make a point about fear without shaming fat people and making unfounded claims about their eating habits.

  13. ontariohealingfields October 15, 2012 at 8:23 pm #

    wow… Thank you that makes a lot of sense. I knew there was a connection between stress and fat, so I do not find the fear connection that surprising!

  14. Farseer October 15, 2012 at 8:34 pm #

    @a – how did anything in this article shame obese people?

  15. Donald October 15, 2012 at 10:06 pm #


    I didn’t read anything in the article that would shame obese people. The fact that some people find this article offensive proves my point.

    When stress reaches a high degree, rational thinking shuts down.

  16. LadyTL October 16, 2012 at 5:20 am #

    @Donald @Farseer So you missed the assumption that overeating causes obesity with no mention of anything else contributing?

  17. TVE October 16, 2012 at 7:27 am #

    @LadyTL @a As a population, we both eat more and are bigger than before. Do you think that is a coincidence? Nobody claims to have the full story for one single person, but as a whole population, the fact is that more calories are eaten and more fat is stored. To link this to our survival instinct throughout evolution is not to shame fat people, it is an explanation without judgement. Learning to deal with the abundance of food – and of fearful information – is a process, we do not have the answers to how to cope with this in the perfect way yet. The situation is new to the human species! For now I for one assume that everyone do their best to take care of themselves – and if they don’t, I would think that they are aware of that themselves. But I would never claim to be able to look at one person and be able to tell how he/she eats.

  18. Ann October 16, 2012 at 2:16 pm #

    WOW. Love this post… I’ve never thought about it that way, but that makes SOOO much sense!

  19. emandink October 16, 2012 at 2:35 pm #

    Hunh. I thought this was going to be an analogy between fear of stranger abduction, anonymous predators and helicoptering and the way that our society demonizes people who don’t fit the perceived ideal and how helicopter parenting is often expressed by parents trying to micromanage their child’s food choices whether at home or away, thus making the specter of obesity and “improper” eating akin to the specter of the scary man in the park with a dog.

  20. Donald October 16, 2012 at 9:39 pm #


    If Lenore stated over eating was the only reason for being overweight then I would agree with you. However that wasn’t the case. She added to the article on how the brain can give out false information.

    When the body is stressed, the defense mechanism kicks in. We’re hardwired that way.
    Rational thought can happen very quickly. However it can still take 500 times longer than defense!

    When defense is given priority, we can see insults that are not there or imaginary kidnappers that are seeking out parents that turn their back for one minute. The results are the same.