There is a direct and well-known link between compromised mental health and obesity. While this is, of course, not always the case, many individuals affected by obesity also suffer from certain mental health issues. Both of these conditions can cause significant distress to the families of those affected while at the same time having a much wider impact on public health services.
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When we take a look at the statistics detailing the prevalence of these conditions in the UK, we can find somewhat surprising data. It seems that roughly one in four UK residents will experience some kind of mental health issue each year, with 25% of the total population being classified as obese.1
Common factors contributing to both mental health and obesity
By looking into the increasingly prominent relation between mental health issues and obesity2, the scientists started compiling a list of external factors that have a clear and direct potential to affect both of these conditions and facilitate their development. Some of the most thoroughly explored factors include:
Women seem to be much more at risk of developing an obesity-depression cycle than men and are significantly more likely to develop mental health problems due to weight gain.
Social and economic status
Contrary to what some might assume, the people from lower classes and more deprived backgrounds are at increased risk of developing obesity and encountering mental health problems. However, the two are often not directly related to each other, as opposed to the previous example – they simply both have higher chances of manifesting in the same context.
Data published by Public Health England, indicates that up to one third of school leavers without qualifications tend to become obese adults.
Obesity levels seem to increase with age, while at the same time most mental health problems are diagnosed in people aged 55 to 65
While still somewhat debated, it seems that ethnicity to plays a role in predetermining risk of obesity. This can be both because of the race and cultural differences. Cultural factors are also crucial when it comes to dealing with mental health issues.
The two are also closely interlinked in different ways. For example, person’s mental health can have a direct impact on the weight, while at the same time weight and person’s perceived body image can go on to cause mental health problems. But, these interactions don’t make the link between the two any clearer.
Emotional eating is undoubtedly one of the best-known links between obesity and mental health. This practice is rooted in the fact that food can sometimes be used for non-nutritional purposes. In these scenarios, the individual engaging in emotional eating can be prompted to eat by his or her emotions, rather than actual hunger.
The most common emotional triggers directly related to unhealthy eating habits include:
- Low mood
In more or less all of these situations, the food is used as a kind of comforter that aims to satisfy unresolved emotional problems. This maladaptive coping strategy can actually even lead to food-dependence when it comes to emotional support, thus clearly setting the stage for weight gain and eventual obesity.
The psychological basis of binge eating
Binge eating is a colloquial term used to denote a type of eating disorder marked by compelling urge to eat excessive amounts of food, most commonly in short amount of time and without natural hunger trigger. People engaged in binge eating often feel loss of control and commonly try to cope with this by going through periods when they deny themselves food. However, this cycle of binging and purging can lead to radical changes in blood sugar levels which can confuse the parts of the brain tasked with triggering hunger. As a result, unnatural food cravings might occur, further complicating the problem.
At the same time, episodes of binge eating can be subjectively experienced as something unpleasant and shameful, leading to feelings of shame and disappointment, thus putting those affected at an even higher risk of clinical depression.3
Building a healthy relationship with food
The link between mental health issues and obesity is often explained by referring to so-called unhealthy relationship with food. Our adult relationship with food is, in turn, strongly marked by the experience of our formative years when we first learn what it is to feel hungry and how often should we eat in order to manage our hunger.
For a majority of people, this foundation was overall positive, resulting in healthy food relationship that involves enjoying nutritional food in a healthy way. However, it seems that many adults struggling with obesity have had unhealthy relationship with food in those early years of their lives. Behaviours learned during the formative years can be very troublesome to overcome and various experiences from that period can play a crucial role in shaping our experience as an adult.
Psychologists have concluded that abuse, neglect or other traumatic events experienced during childhood can all trigger unhealthy eating habits later in life. What’s more, many of the individuals with these experiences tend to use food as a distraction from their negative feelings.
Some people affected by very low self-esteem and feelings of low self-worth caused by childhood abuse tend to use food in order to create a physical barrier – in their view, sometimes subconsciously, gaining weight seems to be a good way to be less noticeable or attractive, meaning it will be easier to keep people at a distance.
Can you be addicted to food? Are there any addictive foods?
The biological reason for food consumption is providing our body with ‘fuel’ it needs to function properly, and supply it with essential nutrients so we can be active and productive throughout the day. However, everybody knows that there are numerous types of food that we might consume on a regular basis with little or no thought about their nutritional value.
While no food is addictive in itself, the studies have confirmed that foods rich in sugar, salt and fat can cause a chain of chemical reactions in the brain that are subjectively experienced as pleasure. So, technically, it might be possible for certain individuals to get ‘addicted’ to a dopamine rush that occurs as a result of consuming certain types of food. In some rarer situations, the reward signals from the brain can be so strong that they even manage to compete with the natural feeling of fullness, leading to abnormal eating habits and overeating.
Modern society as weight gain factor
There have been many independent studies that confirm that attitudes towards food change through time and through space, with different norms and patterns of behaviour being rooted in different cultural contexts. For example, snacking throughout the day, eating late at night, drinking beverages rich in calories are all labelled as unhealthy, but are nevertheless part of the norm. In other words, these habits have been accepted by society and are propagated in our everyday experience, in the media and in general discourse of the society.
On top of that, hedonism of the western world in the 21st century put an even greater emphasis on the taste of food (as opposed to its real nutrient value) and the practice of eating out can often make healthy eating even more difficult to achieve.