Obesity and Its Impact on Mental Health

obesity scale

While the world’s population has been going on a rising trajectory, it has also been growing heavier by the year.  Obesity is now a global health issue.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the epidemic is spawned by the pervasive issues of unhealthy diets and low physical activity.  Obesity is expected to be one of the biggest killers by the year 2020.

High body mass indices (BMIs) of 30 or more plague an estimated 300 million people globally at every social class and age group, particularly in the U.S., U.K., Middle East,  Australia, China, and the Pacific Islands.  Much more disturbing is the phenomenon of rising child obesity which has almost tripled within the last three decades.

Notwithstanding the fatal repercussions morbidly excessive weight can have on physical health, obesity takes its toll on mental health as well.

The Relationship between Obesity and Mental Health

Research backs evidence of an intrinsic link between obesity and common mental disorders. Obesity can cause depression, anxiety, and other unhealthy mental conditions just as these mental illnesses can lead to obesity.  According to the March 2011 National Obesity Observatory paper on Obesity and Mental Health, studies point to a two-way correlation between depression and obesity.  “Obese persons had a 55% increased risk of developing depression over time, whereas depressed persons had a 58% increased risk of becoming obese.  Another recent systematic review and meta-analysis found a weak but positive association between obesity and anxiety disorders.”

Generally, an obese person is not a very happy person.  Obesity can trigger many unhealthy psychological conditions:obesity stigma


A higher incidence rate of depression occurs among morbidly obese individuals, especially those with BMIs of 35 and over.  Studies also reveal that obese children often rate their quality of life lower than children suffering from cancer.  The Swedish Obese Subjects (SOS) study disclosed that very obese individuals often had as much as or higher depression scores than patients who were afflicted with chronic pain.

Western culture places a stigma on weight and as a result, excessively overweight individuals tend to develop self-imposed social isolation, poor self-image, and low self-worth, all major contributory factors to depression.  This has not been without just cause, though.  Society has not been very kind to the excessively overweight.  Fat people have often been ridiculed, ostracised, and stereotyped; hence leading most overweight individuals to adopt even more self destructive behaviours such as binge eating and substance abuse.

There is a silver lining though.  When obese patients begin to take off significant weight, their mental state also begins to improve.

Anxiety and Mood Disorders

A study that involved NESARC data found that obese persons were one and a half times more likely to report a mood disorder or panic attacks that have been plaguing them for the past year or as long as they can remember.  Extremely obese individuals were twice as likely to report the same.  The anxiety phenomenon is stronger in women than in men.

Because of Western culture’s aversion to fat people, obese individuals can develop social anxiety disorder (SAD) just from the sole reason of being extremely overweight.  Such a disorder has served to impair their functioning in their social milieu.

On the obverse, anxiety can breed obesity as well.  Anxiety can trigger compulsive and excessive eating patterns and depress the will to engage in physical activity, two factors which generally lead to obesity over time.

What Can Be Done?

For people with mental health disorders due to obesity, there is good news.  Mental health conditions significantly improve as one reduces his weight.  However, making radical changes to lifestyle eating and movements may backfire if one does not make such changes with a support group or team.

Consider approaching the obesity problem with the help of qualified professionals.  Your GP can draw up a safe, balanced eating plan and exercise regimen while a psychiatrist or psychologist can help you discover the core issue behind overeating and your subsequent weight gain.  These professionals can also help you deal with negativity and low self-esteem.

Depending on the level of obesity, medications for obesity or surgical procedures such as gastric bypass, bariatric surgery, and the like may be prescribed.  However, lifelong lifestyle changes will always be obligatory to complement and maintain obesity treatment.

Major Mental Disorders (MMD)

The acronym MMD stands for Major Mental Disorder of which there are five broad categories:  anxiety disorder, mood disorder, psychotic disorder, dementia, and eating disorder.  These mental illnesses are not a result of one cause but rather an interplay of a variety of factors which include environment, genetics, and lifestyle.


Anxiety Disorders

An anxiety disorder is positive in a diagnosis if the patient has any of these three symptoms:

  • illogical or inappropriate fearful and anxious response to objects, events, people, and situations
  • inability to control these fear responses
  • having no control over anxious feelings so much so that it disrupts normal functioning

Anxiety disorders are specifically manifested by these mental sub-illnesses:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) — GAD is characterized by excessive or chronic worrying about one or many areas of life such as family, income, career, friends, and school, among other things.  The fears may often be unfounded and skew off tangent; if there is some basis, the amount of worrying is excessively way out of proportion to the real situation.  A person afflicted with GAD may find himself unable to go about his life normally because of excessive dread.
  • Panic Disorder — characterized by feelings of terror and fear which may or may not occur suddenly.  These are repeated panic attacks accompanied by physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, chest pain, sweat, tremors, and disorientation.
  • Phobias — intense fear, often irrational, of something that actually does not pose any immediate or even potential danger.  Ex.  fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia); fear of crowds (agoraphobia);  fear of darkness (achluophobia)
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)  — often characterized by emotional numbness and recurring vivid memories of traumatic incidents.


Psychotic Disorders

Psychotic disorders are known as a set of mental illnesses that involve a distortion of reality.  To someone plagued with psychosis, delusions (assignations of unreal meaning to normal and innocent events) and hallucinations (experiences of non-existent things that are not connected to any genuine sources such as hearing voices) are perceived to be as real as normal people see things to be.

Mental maladies under psychotic disorders are:

  • Schizophrenia — a serious mental disorder that is marked by distorted thought patterns, hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia, all of which lead the individual toward strange, irrational behaviours.  Schizophrenics may hear voices not attached to any source or may believe in delusions such as being a real princess or warrior.
  • Schizo-affective Disorder — a variant of schizophrenia mixed with mood disorders such as mania or depression.

Mood Disorders

Mood disorders are also known as affective disorders.  Persistent feelings of sadness or abnormal elation over a certain period of time may qualify under this mental malady.  Extreme emotional fluctuations also characterize this category under which these illnesses belong:

  • Bipolar Disorder — a disorder identified by extreme changes in mood from mania (“high” mood state) to depression (“low” mood state).     major mental disorder
  • Clinical Depression — surpasses the normal feelings of sadness and puts one in a chronic state of pessimism, hopelessness, emptiness, worthlessness, anxiousness, and other severely low mood situations.  Patients cannot just bounce back from their low moods, unlike unafflicted individuals who have the abilities to cope with abysmal feelings.  Clinical depression has been known to be the cause of some suicide cases.
  • Dysthymic Disorder — an illness marked with constant low-grade depression for more than two years.  Symptoms include low energy, feelings of hopelessness and low self-esteem, sleep and appetite problems, poor focus, and indecisiveness.

The danger to these depressive mood disorders is that the risk for suicide among sufferers is high.


Dementia refers to a slew of mental health problems symptomised by rapidly declining memory and other cognitive functions.  Dementia is diagnosed when the one or more of the following are impaired:

  • Memory
  • Ability to concentrate or pay attention
  • Visual perception
  • Language and communication abilities
  • Judgement and reasoning

The cause to all these impairments are brain cell damages which hinder these cells from communicating adequately with each other.  Alzheimer’s disease makes up a large percentage of dementia cases, followed closely by vascular dementia and dementia due to medical problems such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease.  Toxic substances such as drugs, alcohol, mercury, lead, etc. can contribute to the development of dementia as well.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders involve extreme thoughts, attitudes, and behaviour towards food and weight.  These disorders manifest as either of these issues:

  • Anorexia Nervosa  — a condition that is indicated by an overwhelming and all-consuming dread of being fat.  Anorexics have a distorted body image and obsessive thoughts about food, calories, and weight on which they impose severe restrictions.  For sufferers, one can never be too thin.  Anorexia is dangerous because the condition can cause death from suicide, cardiac arrest, starvation, and other medical complications.
  • Bulimia Nervosa —  an eating disorder in which the sufferer chronically binge eats and then frantically purges the calories consumed as an attempt to lose weight or not gain the pounds from overeating.  Bulimics, like anorexics, have an obsession with food; only they overeat with the thought that they can purge their “sins” later.  A person with bulimia can consume between 3,000 – 5,000 calories in a short hour.  In the next, he often guiltily purges what he has consumed by inducing vomiting, applying enemas, exercising voluminously, or going on crash diets.  The constant binge-and-purge cycle wreaks havoc on the metabolic system, forcing bulimics to gain weight over time.
  • Binge Eating Disorder — chronic overeating without any purging involved.  The cycle moves around binge eating, feeling guilty and ashamed for gluttony,  then emotional eating again to assuage the guilt.  Binge eaters are usually obese and may suffer from hypertension, cardiovascular disease, depression, and anxiety.


These major mental illnesses are treatable but need the help of professional mental health practitioners.  The stigma associated with mental maladies however is the main cause of why  people avoid treatment or fail to recognize that they need treatment.  More information and education about mental illnesses should be provided so that early stages may be recognized and tended to correctly.

What is an Eating Disorder?

eating disorders men

Why one starves himself while another eats himself to an early grave are behaviours often rooted in complex psychological issues.  Extreme forms of eating behaviours are not merely a modern day malady.  Eating disorders have been recorded human behaviour since ancient times and have been mentioned in many documents and literature sourced around the world.

The era of ancient Roman Empire for one is marked as a period of excess.  During the time of its great generals, Marius and Julius Caesar, the perverse cycle of binge eating and vomiting (bulimia) during banquets seemed to be de rigueur among rich Romans.  African lore, on the other hand, speaks of the heroic efforts of parents who fasted during extreme famine in order to save food for their children.  This practice had the same effects as modern anorexia in that long after the famine crisis was over, these adults continued to restrict their food intake to the point of dying from starvation.  In other words, these adults had developed an eating disorder in the course of their survival efforts.

What Typifies an Eating Disorder?

Today’s brands of eating disorders are an amalgam of psychological problems.  There is no one single reason why one would develop the disorder but it can arise from a complex mix of other issues.

The National Centre for Eating Disorders defines an eating disorder as “extreme shape and weight control behaviour which is underpinned by excessive concerns about your weight or your body shape.”  A person who obsesses about his or her weight and figure to the point that it already undermines his personal, social, and work life may, more often than not, suffer from an eating disorder.  Such a person is quite likely to possess very low self-esteem.

tape around mouthEating disorders are mental illnesses, the common types of which include binge-eating, bulimia, and anorexia.  These illnesses usually creep up on one gradually but there are cases in which one of these appears suddenly.  Most of the time, people afflicted with an eating disorder usually don’t know they have a problem until they are deep into their syndromes already.  Generally, patients with an eating problem excessively worry about how they look physically, what they eat, and how much they eat.  They also have an obsessive compulsion to compare their bodies to “perfect ones” on magazines and other commercial images.  At present, an estimated 725,000 people in the U.K. have some kind of eating disorder.

At the onset of the malady, it is possible for a person to carry on normally in every facet of his life, except where his diet is concerned.  He may have normal relationships and a progressive career; but, as his illness deepens, many aspects of his life such as work, education, and relationships start falling down the rabbit hole of either starvation or overindulgence.

How Do Eating Disorders Come About?

How someone can grow to be extremely invested emotionally on their weight and shape is a question that needs to be drawn from myriad factors of a patient’s circumstance.  An eating illness may be a convoluted issue.  Eating disorders can arise from a negative complex link of familial, genetic, cultural, experiential, and social elements (to name a few).  One thing is clear, though.  Most sufferers begin their syndrome through initiating bad dieting behaviours.

A bad relationship with food is a coping mechanism to deal with things a person feels he has no control of.  Although there is a multitude of reasons for eating disorders, there are commonbinge eating characteristics that stand out among the afflicted:

  • Low self-esteem; feelings of worthlessness
  • Feelings of powerlessness
  • Usually avoids emotional problems; inability to face issues head on
  • Lacks the ability to manage relationships to get some satisfaction from them
  • Possess low assertion skills
  • Very sensitive to rejection or abandonment
  • Carry extremely high standards for themselves, although they may not expect those same qualities in other people
  • Always anxious to please
  • Cannot say “No” to requests

Can Eating Disorders be Treated?

Although an eating disorder is a serious ailment, it is treatable; in fact, a full recovery is possible.  The earlier this illness is tackled, the higher the chances of a patient making his way back to a life no longer dominated by bad food relationships.  Treatment should deal with a patient’s psychological, emotional, physical, and of course, nutritional aspects, necessitating a holistic but personalised approach.

What Can One Expect from Treatment?

A patient fully recovered from an eating disorder may look forward to:

  • A more positive outlook on life
  • No more obsessions with food
  • Feeling better about one’s self and body
  • Being able to manage feelings in a healthy manner
  • More self control especially with cravings
  • Better sleep
  • Improved energy levels
  • No more emotional eating or stress eating
  • Coping without a food crutch
  • Being generally happy and loving one’s self
  • A better looking and stronger body

Response to treatment is varied and recovery times are highly individual.  What is important is to get help that tackles the heart of the issue and not merely its symptoms.  As mentioned, a holistic type of treatment is the road toward the best chances for optimal recovery.