In Britain they have a thing called the National Obesity Observatory (NOO) through which the government publishes the results of research concerning overweight and obesity. To gather information, the NOO operates the National Child Measurement Programme, whose data it analyses and interprets, and then advises health care practitioners and policy makers.
The NOO published a report titled “Obesity and Mental Health,” authored by M. Gatineau and M. Dent, which is available as a PDF download.
One interesting angle is that actual obesity is less predictive of mental disorders than the self-perception of obesity. This has to do with a person stigmatizing herself or himself on account of a weight problem that might not even be objectively real. When people feel stigmatized because of their weight, it makes them vulnerable to depression and more likely to experience low self-esteem. They also tend to avoid exercise and practice maladaptive eating habits.
Overall, it seems clear that there are “bi-directional associations between mental health problems and obesity,” especially in teenagers and adults, but not so much in young children. The term “bi-directional” was chosen because the exact causality is not apparent in this complex relationship between obesity and widespread mental health disorders. The report says:
There are several theories about how the two are linked. Some researchers suggest that obesity can lead to common mental health disorders, whilst others have found that people with such disorders are more prone to obesity. Other studies have found no association between the two…. Obesity is also associated with an increased risk for a variety of chronic diseases, most of which are associated with depression which in turn can precipitate chronic disease due to diminished treatment adherence and/or response.
In other words, being fat makes a person depressed, and a depressed person is less likely to care about anything, including improvement of the situation. The feeling of hopelessness can cultivate an amount of apathy that makes the person stop caring about making any effort to follow the advice of a health-care provider, or to start working out, or to plan a better nutritional course. Then of course, body weight increases, leading to even more depression and apathy.
In explaining all this, the authors use two terms: “moderator variables,” which may influence the strength of the relationship between the two conditions of obesity and mental disorder; and “mediator variables,” which help explain the existence of the relationship.
Where children and adolescents are concerned, for instance, an overweight kid can slide into a mental disorder if other factors are involved, such as teasing, dissatisfaction with body image, low self-esteem and insufficient exercise. When a child or teen with a mental disorder is at risk for obesity, that tendency can be exacerbated by poverty, family instability, medication or lack of energy to engage in healthy exercise. In the lives of many children, all the raw material is available to fuel any number of vicious cycles.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “Obesity and mental health – National Obesity Observatory,” March 2011
Image by Maria Daniela De La Rosa