Worldwide, 600 million people or 13% of the population are clinically obese, a number that has tripled in the past fifty years. Research continues to develop in understanding the root causes of the obesity epidemic, and evidence points to psychological and social factors playing a key role. Anxiety and depression, which can contribute to weight gain and overeating, are also more prevalent today than they were in 1980. Taking steps towards better mental health is an important factor for achieving a healthier body weight and benefits your overall sense of well-being.
The Link Between Depression and Obesity
Depression and obesity are two health issues that can create a cyclical effect; if you are experiencing depression, it hinders your motivation for physical activity and impairs your ability to make healthy choices. In turn, lack of exercise, poor nutrition and feeling self-conscious about your body feeds into your depression. Begin by addressing the underlying cause of your depression by speaking with a mental health professional and devising a treatment plan. Therapy, medication and networks of social support can have a profound effect on improving symptoms of depression. Exercise can also help improve your mood and confidence; when you exercise, your body releases neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin, which promote feelings of well-being. Exercise can even support nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain associated with mood regulation.
The Connection Between Stress and Eating
Stress is both a psychological and physiological state. On a mental level, you may experience racing thoughts, irritability and difficulty coping. On a physical level, your hypothalamus sends a signal to the sympathetic nervous system, triggering a cascade of hormones, increasing your heart rate and breathing, and heightening your senses. Chronic stress increases your risk for heart disease and stroke, which is exacerbated if you are also obese, and managing stress levels is crucial for cardiovascular health. Cortisol and ghrelin, two of the hormones released during a stress response, are also responsible for regulating appetite, and higher levels of these hormones may cause you to eat more. Cortisol also encourages the body to hold on to fat stores, making weight loss difficult. Mindful meditation can be an effective way to improve your mind and body connection, helping you stay present and let go of stress. Practicing mindful eating engages your senses to minimize distracting thoughts that may trigger you to overeat.
Identifying and Treating an Eating Disorder
While the stigma attached to eating disorders leads many to associate this diagnosis exclusively with the severely underweight, in reality, as many as 1 in 5 people who are obese may be diagnosed with an eating disorder. Bulimia and binge eating disorder are complicated and serious diagnoses that can lead to weight gain and a number of other health problems. Treating an eating disorder requires the care of a professional team that includes psychiatrists, therapists, nutritionists and physicians. Early detection and intervention is key, and people who have eating disorders may require ongoing treatment throughout their lives.
If you’re struggling to lose weight, focusing on your mental health can improve your efforts. Addressing the underlying causes of emotional eating and other unhealthy lifestyle choices may be the missing link in your weight loss plan. Explore different resources to improve mood and mitigate stress, and seek support when you need it.