Friday, December 2, 2011

Fat and happy?

It is December, and just like last year, suddenly my bathroom scale is insisting that I’ve put on nearly three kilos since the summer ended.

I would pretend that it happened due to forces beyond my control, were it not for certain damning evidence to the contrary.

[The prosecution exhibits to the jury a large pile of crumpled chocolate wrappers and one tiny wedge of brie remaining out of a festive 3-pack of massive cheesy wheels…The jurors recoil in horror, sickened at such gluttony. The defendant jumps to her feet, pleading dramatically “No! Don’t show them any more! I confess! I am guilty as charged!”]

Last year (my first year of living in Finland) I got mildly panicky right about now. I couldn’t stop comfort-eating. I couldn’t stop gaining weight. I could actually feel my fat cells plumping themselves to a round succulence. Long-suffering Nordic-boy husband got a tearful earful.  He listened patiently. He looked genuinely baffled. He finally said, “But…everyone puts on weight in winter.”

No! Why would they? It is unhealthy and unnatural for one’s weight to fluctuate with the seasons, surely. I was convinced that the extra fat was there to stay, and all because of my complete lack of self-control during this season of hot chocolate and over-availability of luscious festive fare.

But oddly, apart from the fact that I actually needed to go out and buy Fat Jeans in a whole size larger (which was demoralizing and a hugely depressing blow to my vanity) gaining weight actually felt… [scared to admit this]… well, quite good! I felt somehow happier, calmer, more content.

And no one was more surprised at I was when, in the summery warmth of July, I suddenly noticed that this extra fat had miraculously vanished again.

This leads me to propose an outrageous hypothesis. Said outrageous hypothesis assumes the following propositions:

1. In Finland, the summers are as endlessly bright and sunny and glorious; the winters are endlessly dark and gloomy and grim.

2. Summer makes you feel happy and winter makes you feel sad.

3. Summer makes you thinner and winter makes you fatter.

My theory, which links these statements with highly dubious yet somehow irrefutable logic, is:

We get fatter during the winter because the sun is gone, we feel depressed, and extra kilos help us replenish our happiness deficit. In other words, body fat actually promotes feelings of happiness and well-being. A fatter person is a happier person!

“A seriously misguided and laughable theory! You can’t possibly be serious!” you scoff. I see the picture in your mind – of me, a Bridget Jones-esque figure, grasping at fallacious arguments with one hand while using the other to stuff a Mars Bars into her mouth. On one level, I agree with you. I mean, except for those rare people (highly envied by the likes of me) who can eat like a horse and still remain underweight, most of us don’t want to put on extra weight, ever.

Or do we? - maybe not "want" to, but "need" to? Could it be that, physiologically, people with a certain threshold level of body fat are in fact objectively happier than thinner people? Could it be that fighting to keep our fat levels down, in response to societal messages that thinner is better, is actually making us unhappy?

We want to be thin, but actually it’s bad for us -?

This was such a comforting theory that I couldn’t let it go without a fight. I even started feeling mildly curious – what if I’d unintentionally proven some well-known scientific fact, or even (gasp!) innocently made some earth-shattering medical breakthrough, despite having no medical training whatsoever, and only the most tenuous of grasps on basic human biology, chemistry, or well, science in general.

Imagine my elation at discovering, within just a few mouse clicks, that my theory was supported by none other than James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA and Nobel Prize winner!  Watson has apparently been researching how the release of leptin (made in fat cells) simulates the release of melanocyte stimulating hormone (MSH), which in turn impacts the body’s production of feel-good endorphins. Watson suggests: “…do people who are fat produce more endorphins? Could this explain why Father Christmas is cheery and fat? And why high profile fashion models may be unhappy and turn to drugs to stimulate their internal endorphins?”

“Content people have weight on them. That is why we hire thin people because they are discontent and will work harder. Heavier people are more mellow and less successful. Thin people, on the other hand, are so driven by the need to find that elusive happiness that they become overachievers. So worldly success may well come more easily to the slender.”

He has also noted that since MSH can also be affected by sun, happiness could depend on either being in the sun or being fat.


[Note: I later discovered that Watson apparently also said the following:

"[I am] inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa [because] all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really."

“Stupidity is a disease and the "really stupid" bottom 10% of people should be cured.”

"People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great."

This made me suspect that he is a miserable jerk, which would actually support his own happiness theory, based on the fact that he looks quite thin and gaunt in recent photos!]

Another article noted that, among other things, high levels of leptin increase endorphins and suppress appetite. Low leptin levels cause the opposite effects. The tricky thing is that while leptin is produced in our fat cells, high leptin levels cause the burning of fat cells, which in turn reduces leptin levels. This says to me that one easy way to keep endorphin levels high would be to keep our leptin levels high, i.e., by constantly replacing lost fat cells through voracious eating of delicious food items.

You may be amazed to learn, though, that not all scientists advocate obesity as a sure-fire road to happiness.

"On a short-term basis, a high fat diet makes you pleasant and lethargic. You eat a nice big dessert, you feel good, you want to lie down and go to sleep," says Joseph Dunbar, professor and chairman of the Department of Physiology at Wayne State University School of Medicine, in this article. "But it's very difficult to agree with anyone who is promoting obesity as a way of feeling good. There are so many higher health risks including hypertension and diabetes."

Worse, though, apparently inhaling chocolate religiously and maintaining a high level of body fat does not guarantee you a constant endorphin high: "In obesity, we see an increase in endorphin levels, but also a decrease in sensitivity to endorphins," says Dunbar.


I’m still going to go with my gut feeling on this one. My unfashionably cellulite-y winter coat feels good. Maybe that’s because keeping it on actually is doing me good by making me fatter and happier. Maybe I’ve just let myself become convinced of that. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. Nordic winters call for extreme survival techniques, and until someone teaches me how to hibernate, I will continue to reach for my medicinal chocolate instead.


  1. Oh I love it, the problem for me here is that Christmas and all the festivities and eating are in summer - so I get fatter in summer - but still, it means Im a nice, cheerful person!

  2. anobservantmind, it sounds like I have to re-work my theory if the summer-winter happy-sad thing is actually irrelevant and Christmas is in fact to blame for all this! sigh... :-)

  3. Its the modern disease for women - obsessing about weight...
    And to be honest I have always been more successful (with the opposite sex - yes, yeuch!) than my much skinnier fellow sisters...not a boast - just observation.
    Fraid I have never properly bought into the whole "skinnier is the only way to be a woman" stuff.
    I have never been huge nor have I ever been small. Though I am aware that size 0-10 women would be horrified to be my British average size 14-16. I am relatively tall. I am attractive in an average way.
    But I am generally happy. Confident. Content in my physical skin. Fat or thin - maybe this is the key? Yes, by all means be healthy, but above all love your own self. And sometimes that means a bit of extra padding... Be a happy confident you...
    Incidentally, Scotland and Finland have similarities re dark and climate and health records etc - though I believe that the Finns have managed to reverse heart disease etc increases. I certainly understand the winter fat theory - usually go up a couple of pounds about this time of year!

  4. You are so right that being happy and at peace with yourself is far more important than your dress size. I wish I didn't worry about matters of body image quite so much as I do. Although I've come a long, long way since my "Defeating the Skinny Bitch" days ( I haven't yet found enough peace within my own mind to feel 100% comfortable within my own skin. These days, I'm neither very big nor very thin (people might describe me as looking "tall and strong") and I hope that someday soon I will be able to cope better mentally with fluctuations of a few kilos during the festive season!!
    By the way, I would say that the time in my life I was most attractive to men was the time I felt the happiest and most confident. I was certainly bigger than I am now. Maybe, for some women, the stress of trying to be or stay skinnier than they feel comfortable actually stops their inner light from shining at its brightest!

  5. You look stunning to me! And tall and strong sounds like a very good description for a wonderful, clever, confident and happy woman...

    I have a few years on you...and I've found that the older I've got the less stressed and more relaxed about image I've become...and strangely (this is what happens when you have boys who grow into young men) the more irresistible I have become to my eldest sons pals!!! Its hilarious - but I've become their Mrs Robinson...
    It is all ahead of you! lol

  6. Excellent! I'm looking forward to it :)

  7. There's also the fairly well-known observation that winters in Finland tend to be colder than summers - at least objectively speaking. Which would explain certain changes in biochemistry for life forms that dislike being cold.