Obesity is one of the most worrying health issues of the 21st century. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), obesity is a global epidemic. It is an issue not just in high-income countries (like the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom) as it once was, but also now prevalent in low- and middle-income countries. It also affects people of all ages and backgrounds. The link between obesity and mental health issues is just starting to be explored.
WHO statistics shows that more than 2.8 million people pass away each year as a result of being either obese or overweight — that is, with an “abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that may impair health.”
With the prevalence of obesity across the globe having almost doubled between 1980 and 2008, health officials have seen a huge rise in corresponding medical problems. In fact, for anyone studying the importance of treating and preventing public health issues, or other related fields, the likely focus of studies over the coming years will be on obesity and related health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer.
However, some of the other related problems that stem from being overweight are also a major cause for concern. While many medical practitioners and public health officers focused, in the past, on the physical issues caused by obesity, research studies around the world are providing evidence that being overweight also has a big impact on mental health. In turn, those with depression or other mental illnesses are actually much more at risk of becoming overweight or obese.
Read on for some of the key links between the body and the mind when it comes to the issue of weight.
Depression and Obesity
According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, completed between 2005 and 2010, there is statistically a prominent link between depression and obesity. The survey information showed that 43 percent of adults with depression were obese, and that adults suffering from depression were more likely to be obese than those adults who did not have depression.
In addition, 55 percent of adults on antidepressant medication who were still experiencing moderate to severe depressive symptoms were also obese, and the proportion of obese people rose as depressive symptoms worsened.
From the study results, it is not clear whether obesity or depression started first, since both were measured concurrently. However, other studies produced in recent years have indicated that the two have a bidirectional relationship — that is, they both influence the other, with depression increasing the risk of obesity, and obesity increasing the risk of depression.
Studies into obesity have shown that the problem can actually trigger a number of different psychological disorders. These include not just depression, but also low self-esteem, distorted body image, and eating disorders.
Furthermore, binge eating disorder (a psychological issue that sees sufferers binging on excessive amounts of food on a regular basis) can often lead to weight gain and obesity, which can thereby negatively affect a person’s mood. Recurrent binge eating episodes can be very unpleasant experiences for people and put them at a much higher risk of clinical depression as a result.
Childhood Obesity and Emotional Issues
Obesity starting in childhood can cause a raft of psychological problems for children, not just in their younger years but all through life. According to research by an Australian, Monash University-led collaborative study (the results of which were published in Research in Developmental Disability in late 2013), school children suffering from obesity are at a higher risk of psychological problems than slimmer youngsters.
The study examined the link between obesity and mental health issues in more than 2,000 Taiwanese children between the ages of 6 and 13. The disturbances covered included depression, inappropriate behavior, relationship issues, and an inability to learn.
Researchers from Monash University and three different organizations in Taiwan looked at how emotional disturbances and obesity might be linked, examining information by gender and checking for displays of psychosocial and mental health problems.
The researchers found that, while having obesity doesn’t automatically mean children will show signs of emotional disturbances, relationship problems occurred more among obese children than those at a normal weight (23.5 percent versus 14.4 percent). Interestingly, the study also showed that children with emotional disorders such as depression or an inability to learn were more likely to be obese than those without.
Looking at the differences between the sexes, the researchers also noticed that boys typically struggle more with relationship problems, while girls were more likely to exhibit inappropriate behavior.
All in all, the findings indicate that there are complex and regular interactions between a child’s emotions and body composition during their primary years of development, an area that requires much more focus and research.
As suggested by the co-author of the study, Emeritus Professor Mark Wahlqvist from Monash, “The early identification of children at risk of developing these combinations of physical and mental health problems may enable interventions that can help to prevent progression to more serious physical and mental health problems in later life.”