How to Deal With a “Fat Attack”

We all have bad body image days, no matter what our body looks like. A term we’ve found helpful in our community is “fat attack,” which is the experience of suddenly feeling like you’ve gained 50 pounds overnight, accompanied by a strong urge to take some kind of drastic action to “fix it.” This term comes from the book Eating in the Light of the Moon by Anita Johnson, which we read together a few months back. The term just stuck, and now we use it all the time.

“Fat attacks” are often triggered by seeing photos of ourselves, stepping on the scale, finding that clothes are tighter, or when putting on clothing that exposes our bodies more.

And while we may feel an intense desire during a fat attack to get back on a restrictive food plan, start a new exercise regime, or spend lots of money on weight loss programs or products, I’ve found that these are not good days to make sweeping decisions or overhaul your habits. Those decisions are usually made from fear, panic, shame, and a desire for control, and they rarely end well. More often than not, they set us up for disappointment and a feeling of failure when our unsustainable “new thing” inevitably falls apart, which leads to more emotional eating. It’s a vicious cycle.

Instead, I’ve found that fat attacks signal the need for extra gentleness and self-compassion, and a bit of inquiry practice if you’re up for it.

During a fat attack, I’ve found it helpful to take a deep breath, and work through the following steps:

Step 1: Remind yourself that your value as a person is not connected to your body size. Think of at least 3 things about you that contribute to a feeling of self-worth separate from your physical appearance. (e.g. people or beings who love you regardless of your size, pride in your talents and gifts in the world, etc.)

Step 2: Calm your”controller” part by reminding her that you know how to lose weight, and could if you wanted to. That’s not the real problem here.

Step 3: Try to get curious about what’s different about today than yesterday, because it’s an objective fact that your body didn’t change drastically overnight, and yesterday you felt ok. This can help with exploring the root cause of the problem.

Step 4: Continue to eat normally until the fat attack subsides.

A fat attack can serve as a signal that there is something else bothering you.
Fat and weight may feel like the problem, but it is usually downstream from what is really going on. Is something up with relationships, work, family, etc?

These sorts of upstream problems are complicated and hard, so focusing on weight can feel easier and safer, with a simpler solution: just get back on the diet program.

But that won’t solve the deeper problems. Fat attacks can come on suddenly no matter your body size.⁠ I’ve had fat attacks at a size 16, and at a size 4. Everyone has them.

Ask yourself, “What is this really about?”

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight. But we are unlikely to make sane decisions during a fat attack. Focus on something else and wait for the emotions to pass. 

The next day when you’re feeling less swirly is a better time to consider your habits. From that clearer mental space you could begin to make small, sustainable changes to your lifestyle that support weight loss, with much less drama. For example, you could make a small change to when you eat your meals or how often you eat, or you could install some new food prep or grocery shopping habits, or you could recommit to moving a little more in a way that feels good throughout the day.

If you’re in the midst of a fat attack, here’s a free guided audio practice that might help. It’s from Annette, our mindfulness coach.

Wishing you the ability to fully be with whatever shows up this week,

❤️ Katie

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