(McClatchy News Service)

Nutritional therapist Esther Cohen had a client who was not losing weight even though she adhered to the nutritional plan they had crafted together.

As it turned out, the extra 30 to 40 pounds the woman was carrying served a purpose. They kept her feeling safe, even though she wasn't aware of it. As Cohen found out when she did the woman's patient history, her client had been raped when she was young.

"It was incredibly scary (for her) to lose weight," Cohen says. "She couldn't lose it no matter how diligent she was. It wasn't about food, but about the trauma held in her body."

It's perhaps not surprising that such a horrifying experience could have a deep effect. But even less traumatic events can affect body physiology, local health experts say.

Alex Gil, a holistic lifestyle coach, says emotions can cause a person's body to hold fat. That's because early humans who faced the regular possibility of starvation and predation passed along genes to deal with such events.

Thos evolutionary strategies, which once helped humans to run from predators or go without food for long periods, nowadays may be deployed in response to the death of a loved one or even such experiences as loneliness or unsuccessful relationships.

"The effects on the body are the same, Think about the survival mode," Gil says. "If your body feels like it's being threatened ... it's going to shut down a lot of systems in the body to save energy."


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Gil, who owns Vitale Coaching, vitalecoaching.com, says her clients' stress often falls in three categories. There's stress they know about and expect. That would mean crazy days of deadlines with a cranky boss, children with school problems and days with appointments stacked end to end. Then there's what she calls suppressed stress, a problem that appears to be festering, but that the person doesn't want to deal with. For example, worry about a parent who is struggling with daily needs or a child who may not be developing normally. The third problem is repressed stress, a deep-seated trauma from the past that the client has never dealt with. Sometimes, in cases such as those, Gil refers the client to a psychotherapist.

Gil generally discovers such issues after poring over the questionnaires she gives to new clients. One of the questions asks them to list the five biggest traumas they have experienced. However, a traumatic event isn't necessarily a part of the picture. More often, a person is living in a way that conflicts with her own values or with the values she has been taught, Gil says.

Cohen, a registered dietitian who owns The Alchemy of Nourishment, alchemyofnourishment.com, in Boulder, also takes an extensive history from incoming clients. Like Gil's clients, some of Cohen's clients have past traumas, but many of their problems are due to strong physiological responses to experiences that are common, although not necessarily easy to deal with.

"Our unconscious minds ... pick up bits of information way beyond what we are able to cohere or translate into conscious thought or conscious vision," Cohen says. "So much of our survival mechanism is hooked up to the amygdala in the brain where we store our fear. A lot of times, we respond from this survival mechanism or survival orientation to stimulants that may not be threatening us."

When it comes to weight, that can have an effect on both what we eat and how our body uses food, Cohen says.

"One way to calm and soothe anxiety is to eat," Cohen says. "We feel more grounded, more centered. Digestion causes (more) blood flow to go to the core. We feel calmer."

That can translate into extra weight making a person feel more grounded (which they literally are), she says. When a person starts to lose weight, it can sometimes cause unexpected anxiety. Cohen says that one way to work with the problem is to become more aware of the body and how emotions manifest in it.

She encourages clients to let go of being angry with themselves when they make eating "mistakes." Instead, she frames it as the body showing the person that a problem needs to be addressed. Cohen describes nutritional therapy in these instances as a gentle process in which the person learns to accept that the extra weight has been an unconscious strategy. Instead of criticizing herself for overeating, a client learns to say something like: "That was a pretty smart technique you developed to feel grounded," Cohen says. The next step is to realize that it's safe to let go of the destructive eating behavior.

"(The process) allows you to move to the resolution stage," Cohen says. "It's not like a resolution to eat well and exercise every day. It's a deeper understanding (as in) 'I really want to nourish my body.'"

Contact Camera Staff Writer Cindy Sutter at 303-473-1335 or sutterc@dailycamera.com