Obesity and mental health

Links between obesity and mental health

By Liz Lockhart

I have just read a report on new research carried out in Australia which ‘has for the first time’ discovered a direct link between obesity and mental health.  Whilst I found the report only mildly interesting and informative it made me feel that I wanted to find out more about any potential link between obesity and mental health.

Which comes first?

I wanted to find out which condition arises first – is it obesity that could cause mental health issues or is it that mental health disorder could cause obesity? 

This ‘new’ Australian research is not it seems, the first time these illnesses were found to have correlation.

The Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) said in October 2009 that people with existing mental health disorders were more likely to become obese, whilst the Australian research carried out by a team at the University of Tasmania found that overweight children who grew up to become obese adults are more likely to develop mental health issues.

I have read several other research-based articles all with conflicting views. Some say that if you are obese you are more likely to suffer with mental health problems and others say that if you have mental health disorder then you are more likely to become obese. Either way however there is clear evidence that one increases your chances of the other.

Research in general.

Whilst a great deal more research needs to be done into mental well being, it seems that the more research I read on all mental health related issues the more I despair at research itself. It took a fifteen-year study in America to decide that living with a depressive can have a depressing effect on you! While reading so many studies and research papers I find the concluding line that ‘further research needs to be done!’  It seems the job of researchers is to further promote the need for research – or am I just being sceptical?

Whatever happened to common sense?

My overall feeling about the link between mental health and obesity is one of good old fashioned common sense. There are many studies and other well known facts, that leads us to understand this comorbid situation is quite possible to occur:

  • If you are suffering from anxiety or depression and receiving medication for the condition then the medication can have the effect of lowering the metabolism, which can cause weight gain. 
  • If you are agoraphobic, anxious or depressed then the likelihood of feeling motivated to exercise is greatly reduced. 
  • Many mental health disorders involve an element of low self-esteem, which can also have an impact on caring for your appearance. 
  • Many abused people find that being overweight is like a blanket to hide their sexuality and almost find a layer of fat comforting.

And Vice-versa:

  • People who are obese or overweight tend to lose some self-confidence and also lose the ability to exercise and with this can come depression, anxiety and even agoraphobia as they try to hide from the outside world.

We have long known that a healthy body goes a long way to having a healthy mind, so these factors alone can have an impact.

Other negative links to obesity.

Perhaps we should consider the other negative aspects of being overweight or obese.  People in these categories have a higher risk of

  • Heart disease
  • Type 11 diabetes
  • Other diseases including some cancers.

What can we do to reduce these risks?

The diet industry is enormous, but we don’t need to spend lots of money on the new craze to understand that in order to lose weight we need to:

  • Eat better
  • Exercise a little more

Overeating and eating the wrong food is very often the cause of being overweight.  If we put in more fuel that we put out then we will suffer the consequences by storing it as fat.  Small steps to reducing the intake and increasing the output are the key to success if we chose to start to lose some of those extra pounds. 

Other strategies

If we start to care about our appearance and ourselves, this goes a long way to improving our mood.  Think about where we can cut back. I know I drink much too much sweet tea each day. I enjoy a spoonful of sugar in each cup. If I substitute every other cup of tea with a glass of water then I know that I will start to lose a few pounds.

 If I walk to the local shop instead of driving then my output of calories will increase again resulting in shedding weight. We don’t have to be extreme in our approach, just use a little of the common sense that the professionals seem to think we lack. 

Substitute a packet of crisps for a piece of fruit or a fizzy drink for a low-fat variety or a glass of refreshing water. If you don’t like conventional keep-fit type exercise then put on some of your favourite music and have a ‘jig’ when no one is looking – you might feel silly but that alone can lift your mood.

If you are happy with being overweight then that is your choice. My feeling is that most overweight people are not truly happy with their bodies and that given a magic cure they would choose to be slimmer. It is so possible to improve our body image and the more we like our shape the more we feel encouraged to continue to be healthier.

If you feel that you could benefit from shifting a few pounds then what have you got to lose except for a few pounds of unwanted fat?

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