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Mental Health Disorders and Obesity

According to the World Health Organization, over 39% of adults globally are overweight or obese. They also remark that the number of obese people has tripled since 1975.

Over a decade, there have been numerous efforts to deal with obesity and being overweight. While the physiological problems associated with this epidemic have been discussed in length, conversations about obesity and mental health disorders should also be at the front line.

How Obesity Causes Mental Health Problems

There’s a strong link between mental health disorders and obesity. According to a study, obesity has been linked to increased lifetime diagnosis of major depression, panic disorder or agoraphobia, and bipolar disorder.

This is how it happens.

Weight Bias and Discrimination

Society’s negative perspectives on obesity are a significant cause of most mental health issues associated with being obese. These perspectives manifest themselves in the form of weight bias and discrimination.

Weight bias refers to the stereotypes and attitudes society forms for obese people that define them as unattractive, undisciplined, and lazy. These misperceptions are widespread among families, workplaces, peers, and medical settings among certain healthcare providers.

Weight bias leads to discriminatory behavior that affects a person’s employment opportunities, self-esteem, and the quality of healthcare they receive.

Quality of Life

Men and women who are overweight often suffer from occupational and physical functioning problems. These problems arise due to their size and possible chronic ailments.

As such, obese adults may have difficulty traveling, attending fun events, or visiting their friends and family. Since they’re not doing what they love, most of them end up suffering from loneliness, isolation, and increased difficulty coping with life’s hardships.

Research has also linked chronic pain to depression.

Physiological Issues

Some obesity-related health factors negatively affect mental health.

For instance, excess body fat and poor eating habits increase inflammatory markers. According to research, heightened inflammation leads to a higher risk of developing depression. It also plays a role in immune system health.

Poor Body Image

Weight bias leads to poor body image. When patients internalize society’s stigma against obesity, they feel dissatisfied with their appearance and embarrassed about their weight.

Some people struggling with excess weight may also experience anxiety over being judged for their looks.

Mental Health Challenges Adults with Obesity Face

Apart from their physical challenges, most adults with obesity generally suffer from these mental health disorders.

Anxiety

Anxiety is a mental health disorder associated with significant worry. Obese people are the most likely to experience anxiety disorders. These can be a panic disorder, generalized anxiety, and social anxiety disorder.

  • Panic disorder – it often occurs alongside other anxiety disorders. People with panic disorder usually suffer from panic attacks where the body experiences intense anxiety. It is often associated with chest pain, shortness of breath, and dizziness.
  • Generalized anxiety – it is associated with excessive worry surrounding multiple areas of one’s life.
  • Social anxiety disorder – this happens when a person’s worry is mainly focused on their social interactions with other people.

It is not precisely known why obese people suffer from anxiety. However, the most common explanation is that it stems from increased stigma, judgment, low self-esteem, and health problems.

There’s also a biological explanation explaining the relationship between obesity and anxiety. Research shows that anxiety increases activity in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This part of the brain handles many functions, including emotional regulation and digestion.

When the HPA axis is not working correctly, it can lead to increased appetite, leading to obesity or weight gain.

Anxiety and obesity also share a few risk factors. Both can be triggered by personality traits such as sensitivity to criticism, neuroticism, a tendency to avoid stress, and a history of childhood abuse.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is also defined as a mood disorder that involves depressive and manic episodes. During a manic episode, the affected person experiences at least a week of either elevated or irritable mood.

Other symptoms of bipolar disorder include racing thoughts, an exaggerated sense of one’s abilities or importance, and increased energy that interferes with sleep.

It is still unknown what causes the link between bipolar disorder and obesity. However, people with bipolar disorder can also turn to food as a coping mechanism, just like other mental health conditions.

Some medications used to treat bipolar disorder, such as mood stabilizers, have side effects such as increased appetite. This causes weight gain, which leads to obesity.

Having bipolar disorder and being obese is very challenging because the patient suffers from the following:

  • More severe depression
  • Resistance to treatment
  • Increased manic and depressive episodes
  • Suicidal ideation

Depression

Depression is defined as a mood disorder that involves loss of interest in activities or hobbies, sadness, and negative feelings about oneself. Most individuals undergoing depression also experience increased appetite and weight gain, putting them at risk of obesity.

Therefore, depression can lead to obesity and vice versa.

Adolescent females have the strongest link between depression and obesity.

Depressed individuals can have low motivation to engage in physical activity and low energy, leading to obesity or weight gain. On the flip side, someone with obesity may struggle to cope with the condition, leading to negative feelings that can turn into depression.

Can Mental Health Problems Result in Obesity?

The link between obesity and mental health is two-way. Mental health conditions can affect a person’s weight in the following ways:

  1. Anxiety, chronic stress, depression, and bipolar disorder can cause excessive eating habits. These unhealthy eating habits are often coping mechanisms that ultimately lead to obesity.
  2. Serotonin deficiency, linked with interrupted sleep patterns and anxiety, leads to carbohydrates craving and obesity.
  3. Depression can make adults lose interest in healthy activities such as physical exercise, leading to excessive weight gain.

Barriers to Receiving Treatment

Obesity and mental health disorders are recognizable and treatable. However, the following can make it challenging to treat.

  • Stigmatization – stigmas surrounding obesity and mental illnesses can keep patients in a vicious cycle. That is why spreading awareness about these conditions is essential.
  • Medication – some mental illness medications pose a barrier to dealing with obesity. For instance, certain mood stabilizers and antidepressants can cause weight gain as a side effect. In some cases, some mental illness patients dealing with obesity may resort to skipping their medication out of fear they’ll gain more weight.
  • Underlying mental health conditions for the obese – for someone already obese, mental health challenges such as low mood or anxiety can make it challenging to live a healthier lifestyle. Traditional weight loss therapies such as physical activity and a nutritional plan may also be difficult to maintain.

How to Improve Your Physical and Mental Health

It is possible to improve your physical and mental health. Dealing with your mental health, for instance, allows you to try even more effective weight loss methods such as bariatric surgery.

This is what you can do to get into the path of healing.

Maintain a Healthy Diet

Maintaining a healthy diet will not just do wonders for your physical health. The foods you eat and your digestion affect serotonin production, which regulates sleep, mood, and appetite. A healthy diet will thus help deal with certain mental health issues.

Try eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables, oils and healthy fats, low-fat or fat-free dairy, and proteins such as eggs, meat, nuts, and soy. Also, limit how much processed food, sodium, saturated and trans fats, and sugar you ingest.

Practice Good Sleep

Inadequate sleep negatively affects your physical and emotional health. Studies have shown that people who sleep less than 5 hours a night are more likely to become obese than individuals who sleep at least 7 to 8 hours.

Sleep affects many bodily functions, including metabolism and the levels of certain neurotransmitters and stress hormones in the body, which are associated with emotional health. People who sleep less also tend to eat more carbohydrate-rich food, resulting in weight gain.

Studies show that about 50% – 80% of individuals suffering from a mental health disorder have sleeping problems. The most affected are patients with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

You should aim for at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night. To consistently maintain this regime, you should try the following:

  • Exercise early in the day
  • Have a consistent sleep and wake time each day
  • Avoid bright lights and electronic devices before bed
  • Limit caffeine to either morning or late afternoon hours
  • Keep your room dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature. Around 650F should be fine.
  • Try using white noise for more relaxation
  • Go to bed only when its bedtime
  • Do a relaxing activity like meditating or taking a bath before bed

Some sleep disorders are brought about by being obese. For instance, you are at a higher risk of getting sleep apnea if you are obese. Sleep apnea causes one to stop breathing periodically during sleep.

If such sleep disorders develop, then you might need medical treatment.

Practice Meditation and Mindful Eating

Studies have found that meditation decreases depression, anxiety, and binge eating. It alters the brain activity in the amygdala, the area in the brain that processes emotions. Meditation also slows and reverses changes caused by natural aging.

With meditation, you’ll be more aware of what and how you’re eating.

There are several ways you can practice mindfulness meditation. If you are new to the practice, it’s best to start with guided meditation. There are several videos and apps online that can teach you the basics.

Practicing mindful eating will make you more aware of your eating habits. This practice involves slowing down your eating process to increase awareness by doing the following.

  • Eat in a quiet place free from distractions
  • Tune into your senses. Notice what you taste, smell, see, feel, and hear
  • Take a few deep intentional breaths before having your meal
  • Notice how hungry you feel as you eat
  • Notice your senses as you bite some food and slowly chew
  • Continue eating mindfully and only stop when you notice your hunger subside

Release Stress

Stress is linked to mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, and eating disorders. People under stress tend to overeat, which leads to obesity.

For some people, overeating is a way of coping with stress. However, it can lead to problems in the long term.

That is why it’s essential to turn away from food when managing your stress. Some of the things you can do to manage stress include:

  • Express your feelings through writing, music, or art
  • Talk to a family member or friend
  • Read a book
  • Do physical exercise
  • Practice meditation, mindfulness, or deep breathing
  • Spend some time in nature

If you are constantly under stress, mental health treatment such as therapy or medication may benefit you.

With therapy or counseling, you learn how to reduce stress by healthily coping with how you’re feeling. On the other hand, medication helps by altering the levels of certain chemicals in your brain.

Try Exercising About Three Hours A Week

Exercising helps manage your weight and mental health. Apart from helping you lose weight, regular exercise will reduce the risk of heart attack, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and cancer.

Regular exercise also reduces the prevalence of anxiety and depression.

That’s because exercise improves blood flow in the brain which impacts the communication between the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the limbic system, amygdala, and hippocampus, all of which affect your mood and stress response.

Professionals recommend adults engage in at least 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise per week. These sessions can be spread out across several days. For instance, you can do 50 -minute exercises for 3 days a week or 30-minute exercises for 5 days a week.

These exercises can range from bike riding at a moderate pace, power walking and doing yard work.

If you wish to do vigorous exercise instead, such as swimming, running, or competitive sports, 75 minutes a week should be enough.

Before you commit to a workout regime, get in touch with your healthcare provider for assistance in coming up with a safe and healthy plan.

You Can Get a Hold of Your Physical and Mental Health

Your greatest weapon in fighting your physical and mental health issues is in acknowledging how strongly the two are linked. Once you start dealing with one, it will be easier to work through the other.

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This article is based on scientific evidence, written by experts and fact checked by experts.

Our editorial team strives to present both sides of the argument with in-depth analysis and links to resources.

This article contains scientific and health-related references. The numbers in the parentheses (1, 2, 3) are clickable links to peer-reviewed scientific papers.