Obesity and mental health are two medical conditions often said to be closely related.

Both conditions can cause significant distress to the individuals and families concerned, as well as having a wider impact on public health services.

In the UK one in four people will experience a mental health condition at some point each year and around 25 percent of the population is classed as obese.

Contributing factors to mental health and obesity

There are several external factors that have the potential to affect obesity and mental health. These include but are not limited to the following:

  • Gender. Women are thought to be more at risk of developing an obesity-depression cycle and are also more likely to be mentally affected by weight gain.
  • Socioeconomic status. Those from poorer and more deprived backgrounds might be more at risk of encountering mental health problems as well as obesity.
  • Education. According to Public Health England one third of school leavers who have no qualifications go on to become obese adults.
  • Age. Obesity levels tend to increase with age whereas most mental health problems are diagnosed within the 55-65 years age group.
  • Ethnicity. Race may hold some predetermining influence over your obesity risk and cultural differences can have an effect on how you deal with mental health issues.

A person’s mental well being can have a direct impact on their weight, yet weight and a person’s perceived body image can also cause mental health problems. However, the link between the two is by no means clear cut.

One study found that depression is between three and four times more likely to occur in severely obese people.

The results of a research project carried out by the National Obesity Observatory identified that those who were classed as obese had a 55 percent increased risk of developing depression at some point during their life; whereas those diagnosed as clinically depressed had a 58 percent increased risk of becoming obese.

Emotional eating

Food can sometimes be relied upon for non-nutritional purposes. Under these circumstances individuals may be prompted to eat by their emotions rather than actual feelings of hunger. This type of behaviour is often referred to ‘emotional eating’.

Emotional triggers for unhealthy eating habits include:

  • Low mood
  • Anxiety
  • Frustration
  • Loneliness
  • Stress
  • Anger

Food might be used as a comforter in order to satisfy unresolved emotional problems. This form of maladaptive coping strategy can lead to a dependence on food for emotional support which in turn can lead to weight gain.

The psychology of binge eating

Binge eating is a type of eating disorder where the individual is compelled to eat excessive amounts of food, usually in a short amount of time and without a natural hunger trigger.

Those who binge eat may feel a loss of control, and may also go through periods of purging where they deny themselves food. Binging and purging can lead to dramatic spikes and drops in blood sugar levels that confuse the brain and lead to unnatural food cravings.

Episodes of binge eating can be particularly unpleasant for the individual and therefore tend to take place in secret. They can trigger feelings of shame and disappointment putting participants at a higher risk of clinical depression.

Building a relationship with food

Our adult relationship with food often has its foundations in how we interacted with it as a child. It is during our formative years that we learn what it is to feel hungry, as well as when and how often we need to eat in order to resolve the hunger.

For many people the foundations built in childhood lead to a positive food relationship, where nutritional food is enjoyed in a healthy way. However, obese adults may have experienced an unstable relationship with food early on in life. Learned behaviours during childhood can prove troublesome to overcome.

Significant childhood events may influence an individual’s well-being later on in life. Abuse, neglect or trauma can all trigger unhealthy eating habits as the individual attempts to use food as a distraction from their feelings.

A low feeling of self worth caused by childhood abuse could lead to food being used to create a physical barrier. Eating to subconsciously or consciously put on weight in an attempt to be less noticeable or attractive can keep people at a distance.

Weight stigma experienced during childhood can increase vulnerability to depression, low self-esteem, poor body image, bad eating habits and decreased physical activity in adulthood.

Are some foods addictive?

We eat food in order to fuel our body and supply it with essential nutrients so that we are able to perform at our best each day.

There are some types of foods and drinks that might be consumed on a regular basis with little or no thought put into their nutritional value.

Highly palatable foods such as those high in sugar, salt and fat have been linked to chemical reactions in the brain related to pleasure.

It is possible for people to become addicted to the feeling experienced when dopamine, the ‘feel-good’ chemical, is released by the brain.

The reward signals experienced when eating these types of food might even be strong enough to override natural feeling of fullness. This can result in over eating, unnatural eating habits and weight gain.

Does our society fuel obesity?

Research shows that attitudes towards food have changed over time. Snacking throughout the day, eating late at night, drinking calorie-dense beverages and snacking without a hunger trigger have all become part of the norm. It would seem that these new food habits have been happily accepted by society.

We naturally want our food to taste great and food is often enjoyed as part of a social event. Eating in a restaurant or ordering a takeaway can be problematic for the consumer when trying to make healthy food choices.

Food is sometimes used to combat a perceived feeling of boredom caused by cognitive overload. Relying on food to relieve boredom can lead to unnatural eating habits that can be difficult to overcome.

If boredom strikes it is wise to try a variety of activities in order to placate the feeling. This way our mind and body won’t habitually expect food as soon as boredom strikes.

Break the weight gain frame of mind

Professional medical support may be required by those dealing with mental health issues and weight gain. Early identification of either condition can help.

There is evidence to suggest that the more episodes of mental health problems or the more severe depression is the higher the risks of weight gain.

Those struggling to control their weight might want to start by thinking about the following practices:

  • Keep track of what you eat. Record your meals and snacks in a diary. What are you eating and when? This can help you focus on the reasons behind your eating habits. 
  • Reduce portion sizes. You can lower the amount of food you eat on a daily basis simply by decreasing the size of the meals that you’re eating.
  • Address stress. If there is a factor in your life which is causing you anxiety or stress then if possible you should try to address it so that you can move past it. This might not always be possible, depending on the cause of your stress but it is important to remember that unstable emotions can hinder weight loss attempts.
  • Involve your close friends and family. Support from the people around you is important as they can help to remove temptations and be there for you if you’re having a bad day.
  • Focus on the good days. Try not to dwell on any bad days you have.

Seeking treatment when necessary

For those with a BMI of 30 or above, seeking advice from a doctor may be able to help. In cases where a risk to health may be present, a doctor may be able to help the patient implement a diet and exercise programme, accompanied by prescription weight loss tablets if necessary, to help them get their weight under control.

Page last reviewed:  24/12/2020