Making Connections between Obesity and Mental Health

Caesar Djavaherian, MD, MS, FACEP
April 1, 2021
5 min

Despite the growing prevalence of obesity across the United States, this medical condition remains paradoxically both one of the easiest to recognize and one of the hardest to treat effectively. Obesity, which is characterized as an excess of body fat, has a huge impact on every bodily process, including mental health.

Many factors influence our handling of obesity. When it comes to obesity risk factors, it can be hard to pick just one area to focus on. Genetics, medication, and comorbid diseases may all have a major impact on an individual’s risk for obesity. In addition to health-related factors, socio-economic and environmental factors, including income, neighborhood, access to healthy foods, and family dynamics, influence obesity.

Then there are mental health risk factors, including anxiety and depression, which may trigger someone to seek comfort or even control through food, making it more challenging for them to maintain a healthy weight.

It’s essential that primary care providers and other health professionals understand just how obesity is influenced by mental health, and vice versa. Today, we’ll cover the basics of this connection, and explain how primary care providers can help patients implement meaningful lifestyle changes that improve their overall physical and mental health.

The Prevalence of Obesity in the United States

Currently, it’s estimated that a majority (55%) of people in the United States are classified as overweight, with half of those falling into the range of obesity. This large percentage of the population with a higher-than-average body mass index (BMI) has implications not just on trends in national public health, but also on our collective mental health. (BMI is a mathematical formula that divides a person’s weight by the square of their height; the resulting number is used to place the person into one of eight bodyweight “categories.” While BMI is frequently used as a guide, many healthcare professionals dispute its accuracy in determining a person’s healthy weight.) 

Since the prevalence of obesity continues to rise, we need to ensure that we’re adequately prepared to effectively treat patients with higher BMIs, offering resources to support their physical and mental health. This starts with understanding just how obesity affects mental health and emotional health.

Obesity and Mental Health Risks

In the 2007 National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R), researchers found a 25% increase in odds of mood and other anxiety disorders in individuals with obesity. This study supports associations that researchers have been making for years. However, it is still challenging to determine exactly how obesity and anxiety or obesity and depression affect each other. Many studies have been conducted to try and reveal additional details about these connections.

Ultimately, the authors of the NCS-R concluded that “we have no way of distinguishing the direction of the causal relationship between obesity and psychiatric disorders nor the possibility that unmeasured common causes induce an association between them.”

Whether obesity stems from mental health disorders, mental health disorders stem from obesity, or an alternative common cause triggers both, all healthcare providers must be aware of their irrevocable connection.

Lifestyle Changes That Positively Impact Both Obesity and Mental Health

When dealing with patients with obesity, healthcare providers should always ensure that individuals are fully educated on the comorbidities that may influence both their mental health and their BMI. This includes anything from pregnancy to lack of sleep, stress, and even other medical conditions like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or arthritis.

To mitigate the negative effects of both obesity and mental health disorders, healthcare providers should help guide patients towards positive, meaningful lifestyle changes. These can include:

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Regular exercise
  • Avoiding or mitigating stress
  • Minimizing the cycle of rapid weight loss and weight gain
  • A diet rich in nutrient-dense foods like whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and lean proteins

With so many complex comorbidities, it can be a challenge to isolate each one to determine how it affects each person. Some patients may find it helpful to work with a therapist who can help them determine identifiable patterns in their unhealthy habits.

The health advice from therapists and healthcare providers should always be offered in a friendly, nonjudgmental way. With our country’s history of stigmatization of overweight individuals, it’s important to ensure that patients feel supported without being judged for their physical appearance.

Looking for more resources on how to support patients? Download the Carbon Health app or visit us at today. 

Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.

Caesar Djavaherian, MD, MS, FACEP

As Carbon Health’s Chief Innovation Officer, Caesar Djavaherian, MD, MS, FACEP, guides clinical innovation through product development, service expansion, and partnerships with transformative companies working to improve the healthcare ecosystem. He is an emergency medicine physician, a former high school teacher, and a reformed academic researcher. Caesar co-founded Direct Urgent Care to deliver technology-enabled urgent care throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. He has practiced at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the University Hospital of Columbia, and Weill Cornell Medicine. In his spare time, Caesar advises healthcare startups, cheers on the Warriors, tries various HIIT workouts, and daydreams about what the future of health will look like.


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