Let’s Talk About Obesity and mental health during this World Obesity Day

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Writes Jacob Ngwenya

There is a need to leverage the power of World Obesity Day commemorated on the 4th of March every year to start cross-cutting conversations. This year’s theme is Let’s talk about obesity and…”

The theme was left incomplete leaving a leeway for individuals and organizations to choose what they want to talk about with Beat Non-Communicable Diseases Zimbabwe (Beat NCDs Zimbabwe) choosing to discuss obesity and mental health.

Obesity is a chronic and often progressive condition not unlike diabetes or hypertension. It is defined by having a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30 kg/m2. This means that you may be carrying excess body fat. While mental health is the state of mental wellbeing.

The physical consequences of excess weight are well known, ranging from type 2 diabetes, increased risk of falls, heart issues, and osteoarthritis. Yet not quite as much spotlight is given to its impact on our mental and emotional health.

Those who have a larger body size may have a higher risk of developing a mental health condition, largely due to the negative effects of weight, stigma, and discrimination. If you live in a larger body, you likely know that your weight and mental health can be related.

But the connection between obesity and mental health isn’t straightforward — and it often has nothing to do with your body size. Whether it’s a result of weight discrimination or the impact of stress on your weight, the relationship between body size and mental health is complicated. Let’s take a closer look at that relationship as well as some ways to help protect your mental health.

In addition to their physical challenges, people with obesity often struggle with mood and anxiety disorders. One study found that adults with excess weight had a 55% higher risk of developing depression over their lifetime and that people with depression had a 58% increased risk of obesity. Other research linked being overweight with significant increases in major depression, bipolar disorder, and panic disorder or agoraphobia.

There are a variety of practical and societal factors that can lead to mental health issues for patients with obesity. These include Quality of life: Men and women who carry significant extra weight often face problems related to physical and occupational functioning, both due to their size and chronic ailments. Being physically unable to do the things they love—such as attend fun events, travel, or visit with friends and family—can lead to social isolation, loneliness, and more difficulty coping with life’s hardships. Chronic pain on its own has been linked to depression.

One of the biggest challenges for those struggling with weight issues is society’s negative perspectives on obesity. Weight bias refers to the stereotypes and attitudes that define people with obesity as unattractive, lazy, and undisciplined. These unfavorable misperceptions can be widespread within families, among peers, in the workplace, and in medical settings by healthcare providers. They can lead to discriminatory behavior that affects a person’s self-esteem, employment opportunities, and even the quality of healthcare they receive.

The relationship between weight and mental health differs from person to person. For some people, emotional distress may lead to irregular eating patterns. It is natural for the human body to crave the comfort of food to cope with stress. This also means that if someone is in a constantly stressful environment — which is common for people with larger bodies — this can result in weight gain.

Society’s negative attitudes about larger body sizes can also contribute to mental health issues. People who are overweight often encounter judgment or stigma from other people. They may frequently hear messages that higher-weight people are:

  • Lazy and irresponsible
  • Ugly and undesirable
  • Responsible for high healthcare costs
  • Part of an “epidemic,” in which their body has a “disease”

Unsurprisingly, these discriminatory beliefs about people living with obesity lead to negative feelings about one’s self. These experiences can lower self-esteem as well as contribute to other mental health symptoms. Obesity is associated with a higher risk of having certain mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders. Often, this relationship is due to the effects of weight discrimination.

On the flip side, stress can contribute to weight gain and increased body fat. Some research suggests chronic high levels of the stress hormone cortisol contribute to the development of fat in the belly area. The connection may be due to genetic factors in how your body physically responds to stress. Chronic stress also means your sympathetic nervous system is activated and on high alert much of the time. Research suggests that this activation can contribute to insulin insensitivity. Chronic stress is also associated with metabolism issues.

Metabolism is responsible for how the body uses and stores energy. The body uses more energy when it’s stressed. Due to chronic stress, the metabolism adjusts how the body uses energy from the food eaten. These changes can lead to metabolic syndrome, which can lead to gaining fat around the waist and high blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol.

Tips for improving your physical and mental health. Regardless of weight, there are many steps you can take to help protect your mental health. By making certain lifestyle changes, you can improve your mental and physical well-being. Eat a healthy diet. Eating a healthy diet can have a positive effect on your mental health.

A healthy diet consists of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Protein, including meat, eggs, nuts, seeds, and soya Low-fat or fat-free dairy as well as oils and healthy fats. Limited processed foods, saturated and trans fats, sodium, and sugar But it’s important to note that a healthy diet is not all about the contents of your food. Food also has health benefits — especially for mental health — when it brings you joy, comfort, or connection. Foods that please you or connect you with loved ones are an important part of a healthy approach to diet.

Practice good sleep hygiene. Not getting enough sleep can negatively affect your physical and emotional health. When you don’t get enough sleep, it impacts many of your body’s functions, including metabolism. People who don’t get enough sleep also tend to eat more carbohydrate-rich foods, which can result in weight gain.) Adults should aim for at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. To practice good sleep hygiene, be sure to:

  • Stick to a consistent sleep and wake time each day.
  • Exercise early in the day.
  • Limit caffeine to the morning and early afternoon hours.
  • Avoid bright lights and electronic devices before bed.
  • Use your bed only for sleep.
  • Keep your room quiet, dark, and at a comfortable temperature.
  • Do a relaxing activity before bed, like meditating or taking a bath.
  • Consider using white noise to promote relaxation.

If you are concerned about your sleep, be sure to speak with a medical professional. Body size and shape can also affect your risk of sleep apnea, a condition where a person stops breathing periodically during sleep. If you have a sleep disorder like sleep apnea, you may need medical treatment.

Exercise is an important activity for your physical and mental health. Regular exercise can decrease your risk of High blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Professionals recommend that adults engage in at least 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise each week, which can be spread out over several days. For example, you can do 50 minutes of exercise 3 days per week or 30 minutes of exercise 5 days per week. Moderate exercise includes power walking, bike riding at a moderate pace, and doing yard work.

Release stress as a coping mechanism. Stress is linked to many other negative health outcomes besides mental health conditions. And for some people, eating may be a way of coping with stress. It is important to find healthy ways to manage your stress. Some things you might try include talking with a friend or family member. Expressing your feelings through art, music, writing or reading a book. You might also consider practicing mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing, exercising, or spending time in nature. If you find yourself stressed regularly, you may benefit from mental health treatment like therapy or medication. Therapy or counseling can help reduce stress by teaching you healthy ways to cope with how you’re feeling. Medication can help tone down distressing mental health symptoms.