Mental Health & Weight Gain

by Ahmed Zayed, MD on July 1, 2020
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Weight gain is a result of multiple factors ranging from an unhealthy lifestyle to certain health conditions. One thing that discussions about weight gain, overweight, and obesity tend to overlook is the role of mental health. What’s psychological health and wellbeing got to do with weight gain? How does being overweight or obese affect our mental health? You’ll find answers to these questions below.

Mental health and weight gain

Psychological health has a major impact on our physical wellbeing and quality of life. Unfortunately, we tend to take our mental health for granted. It’s not uncommon for people of all ages to ignore stress, anxiety, and other problems thinking they will go away on their own. Or because society still has a long way to go, for many people acknowledging these problems is a sign of weakness. 

Does mental health really play a role in weight gain? 

The short answer is yes, but we’re going to dive deeper into this subject below.

Stress and weight gain

Stress is a natural response of the body to threats and other types of negative stimuli. When left unmanaged, stress can worsen and harm your health in more ways than one. Weight gain is one of them.

A growing body of evidence confirms that stress can lead to weight gain and contribute to overweight and obesity. The mechanism through which stress causes weight gain is not entirely clear; multiple factors could play a role. For example, stress contributes to changes in dietary behavior, thus leading to weight gain (1). Many people tend to eat more when they are under stress or experiencing a negative life event. As a result, their body mass increases (2). 

A potential mechanism of action is the change in ghrelin and leptin levels in times of stress. Ghrelin is the hunger hormone and stimulates appetite, while leptin does the opposite. In other words, changes in the concentration of these hormones due to stress could explain why some people eat more. Emotional eating isn’t a myth; it’s a reality.

Evidence supports weight-related bio-behavioral adaptations in interacting metabolic, neuroendocrine, and neural pathways that potentiate food craving and intake of highly palatable foods in times of stress (3). Highly palatable foods are foods that stimulate the brain reward pathways, increase food intake, and contribute to weight gain. So not only does stress make some people eat more, but people are inclined to opt for fast, junk food, which is known for its role in overweight and obesity. These foods have little to no nutritional value, and people usually eat way more than their body needs.

Additionally, high levels of stress hormone cortisol increase insulin levels after which the blood sugar drops, and you tend to crave fatty, sugary foods.

Anxiety and depression and weight gain

Although people usually think stress and anxiety are the same things, the reality is different. All people experience stress and anxiety at one point or another. The main difference between them is that stress is a response to a threat or negative stimuli, while anxiety is a reaction to stress.

Anxiety is indicated by symptoms of intense fear, nervousness, and even panic. Without proper management, it can contribute to weight gain through several mechanisms that are similar to those of stress. You see, anxiety is also associated with higher levels of cortisol, which can cause fat to build up in the abdominal area (4). As you’re already aware, fat around the stomach is stubborn, and it’s tricky to lose it. 

Another mechanism through which anxiety leads to weight gain is the heightened tendency to eat. Overeating and cravings for unhealthy foods are a coping mechanism for some men and women with anxiety but are major risk factors for weight gain. 

Additionally, people with anxiety often lose motivation to engage in physical activity. A sedentary lifestyle is common in this case. Without physical activity and regular exercise, it’s difficult to maintain weight in a healthy range. Weight gain ensues.

Yet another common mental health problem, in addition to stress and anxiety, is depression. Millions of people across the globe have depression, and although a serious psychological condition, it can be managed successfully. 

A growing body of evidence confirms that people who have depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders are more likely to gain weight. This is especially pronounced as they age (5). Gaining weight while depressed is also more expressed in people who are already overweight or obese, which testifies about the severity of the condition (6).

Multiple mechanisms are involved in weight gain among people with depression. For instance, a person with depression often experiences symptoms such as lack of motivation and social isolation. They are reluctant to engage in activities they used to enjoy. Depression may also deprive a person of desire to exercise. This often leads to a sedentary lifestyle and eventual weight gain. 

Depressed men and women change their eating habits too and are more inclined towards eating unhealthy foods. High levels of cortisol could also be to blame due to its impact on body fat. 

In people with depression, the sympathetic nervous system is more active. Since the sympathetic nervous system helps regulate metabolism, it can lead to weight gain by slowing down the metabolic rate.

Does weight gain harm mental health?

The relationship between weight gain and mental health is a two-way street. The same way anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems contribute to weight gain, being overweight or obese put you at a higher risk of developing those conditions.

This is not just the case among adults, but in adolescents too. One study found that compared to their normal-weight peers, overweight or obese teenagers were more likely to report psychosocial problems and suicidal thoughts (7). A growing body of evidence confirms the link between overweight and mental health problems, particularly in youth, and scientists call for a proactive approach. When addressing problems with overweight or obesity in youth, it’s also important to address mental health concerns (8).

The most recent piece of evidence on this topic was published in April 2019, and it involved over 12,000 Swedish children who have undergone obesity treatment. Scientists found that obese children and adolescents have a higher risk of anxiety and depression. The risk persisted even when scientists ruled out other factors (9).

A study that focused on adults found that obesity was strongly associated with depressive symptoms, especially in women (10). Moreover, a study from JAMA Psychiatry confirmed that the relationship between depression and obesity is a two-way street. Obesity increases the risk of depression, while depression makes a person more likely to gain weight and become overweight or obese (11).

How does weight gain harm to mental health?

As seen above, being overweight or obese puts you at a higher risk of developing mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. But, you’re probably wondering why it happens. 

The answer to that question is more complex than it seems. A specific reason that increases the risk or aggravates some mental health problems in overweight people doesn’t exist. Multiple factors play a role here. However, more research is needed to uncover them. Studies that explore the connection between weight gain and mental health problems specify the underlying mechanisms aren’t clear. That happens because, as mentioned earlier, different factors are involved.

For example, being overweight or obese harms a person’s confidence and self-esteem. Negative body image is widely prevalent today, primarily on social media, where people are body-shamed.  Weight gain is also associated with stigma because overweight or obese men and women aren’t considered “humans.” That’s why they are dehumanized on a daily basis. 

A combination of decreased self-worth, low confidence, decreased self-esteem, and social stigma can have a huge impact on a person’s mental health (12, 13). Everyone struggles with these problems from time to time, but when they’re persistent, a problem occurs. A person feels like nobody will find them attractive, doesn’t open up to other people, and starts isolating oneself. Social interactions become a major source of anxiety. Little by little, mental health problem worsens. 

Besides the above-mentioned problems, weight gain can impair psychological wellbeing by harming your health. You see, overweight and obese people are more likely to develop various health problems, and some of them are chronic i.e., they can’t be cured entirely. This can take a major toll on a person’s mental health and contribute to the development of psychological problems or aggravate them.

Evidence shows that repetitive intake of unhealthy foods leads to obesity, which, then, regulates mood due to metabolic disturbances. Then, metabolic disturbances alter brain-signaling systems, thus leading to a vicious bidirectional cycle of food, mood, and obesity. In other words, being overweight or obese changes your brain chemistry and affects your mental health (14).

Medications could also be a problem. For example, many prescription antidepressants have weight gain as one of the most common side effects. In the same way, many weight management therapies can cause emotional ups and downs. That way, weight loss medications can contribute to depression (15).

Dealing with a mental health problem and weight gain

Mental health problems are common but manageable. Dealing with anxiety or depression isn’t always easy, and it becomes even more complicated when a person struggles with weight gain. 

Your weight and mental health influence one another, and it’s important to be proactive. There are many things you can do to feel better, and we’re going to outline them below:

  • Don’t ignore stress and anxiety – the most common mistake people make is that they ignore stress and anxiety. When left unmanaged, these problems can aggravate, which is bad news for your weight. Instead of ignoring the problem, you should face it head-on. There is no specific rule here. You can do something that you find relaxing in order to combat stress and anxiety. Some people read others write, do yoga, meditate, options are endless. 
  • Consult your doctor – if you’ve been diagnosed with a mental health problem, you should consult the doctor about weight gain, especially if extra pounds are a result of medications. Your doctor will either prescribe new medications or change the dosage. However, if you haven’t been diagnosed with a mental health problem, and you experience symptoms associated with them, you need to see a therapist or healthcare provider. This is particularly the case if you are also overweight or obese. Excess weight could have an impact on your mental health. A doctor’s guidance can be a wonderful and effective way of combating both.
  • Exercise – regular physical activity is crucial for weight management, but it also increases the release of feel-good chemicals in your brain. You’ll notice that after each workout, you feel happier and more energetic. Both of these things are good for your mental health and contribute to weight management. 
  • Healthy diet – we’ve become a society where eating healthy foods is considered a punishment. Keep in mind that healthy, nutrient-rich foods are good for your mind just as they are for the body. A well-balanced diet can support weight loss and maintain weight in a healthy range, but also improve your mental health at the same time. 
  • Talk it out – instead of burying feelings deep down, you should talk about it. Don’t feel bad about the emotions you’re experiencing. Once you acknowledge how you feel, it will be easier not to regarding those feelings as a threat or weakness. This allows you to handle them properly.

Conclusion

Mental health and weight are connected in more ways than one. Both influence each other. Their complicated relationship only confirms the importance of a healthy lifestyle and a proactive approach. Instead of ignoring emotions, we need to acknowledge them. Proper handling of our feelings can help prevent overeating and contribute to our weight management efforts. A healthy lifestyle is crucial for both.

References 

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2727271/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3710686/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3658316/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538239/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2770241/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2656591/
  7. https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-019-6832-z
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3740571/
  9. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190427201941.htm
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6148790/
  11. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/210608
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5862752/
  13. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167629617303223
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4150387/
  15. https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/obesity-and-depression#it-could-be-the-treatment

 


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