Obesity in the United States is a major public health concern affecting not only an individual’s physical health but also their mental health and the emotional health of their family. Obesity is defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or higher, which is calculated using one’s weight and height. Weight gain and obesity result from consuming more calories than the body requires given the level of physical activity.
Two of the leading culprits of obesity are sedentary lifestyles and the quantity and quality of one’s diet. Some other factors that impact obesity include genetics, metabolism, endocrine problems, and culture. The Surgeon General (2010) recommends 60 minutes of moderate physical daily exercise for children and teenagers and at least 150 minutes weekly for adults. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has updated its Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommending half your plate be fruits and vegetables and half be grains and protein.
Here are some alarming statistics from the Surgeon General 2010 Report that will hopefully move one to make meaningful lifestyle changes that lead to happier and healthier lives.
- Obesity contributes to an estimated 112,000 preventable deaths annually (Surgeon General, 2010).
- Obesity increases one’s health risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease (Surgeon General, 2010).
- Mental health problems such as depression are associated with obesity (Surgeon General, 2010).
- Obesity is also an increasing problem for children, rising from 5% in 1980 to 17% in 2008 (Surgeon General, 2010).
- There are disparities among some racial groups: 29% of non-Hispanic black teenagers and 17.5% of Hispanic teenagers are obese, while the prevalence for non-Hispanic white teenagers is 14.5% (Surgeon General, 2010).
- Obesity is “more prevalent in persons with mental illness with some reports indicating 83% of people with serious mental illness being overweight or obese” (Surgeon General, 2010).
These statistics are shocking and getting worse every year, just check out the CDC US Obesity Trends by State Map. Many health providers and even First Lady Michelle Obama with her Let’s Move initiative have seen this crisis as a call for action and are working hard to ameliorate this issue. However, the focus has usually been on the physical impact of obesity, often neglecting or downplaying the mental health implications.
MENTAL HEALTH IMPLICATIONS
Given the increasing number of obese or overweight people in the United States and the associated mental health problems such as depression, one can speculate that depression rates will also increase. Addressing depression and other mental health issues associated with obesity is important because one’s emotional state can affect compliance with treatment plans and medications. Depressive symptoms include:
- Low energy
- Low motivation
- Poor concentration
- Anhedonia (i.e., diminished interest in previous enjoyable activities)
- Depressed mood
- Decreased or increased appetite
- Decreased or increased weight
- Insomnia or hypersomnia
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Thoughts of death and suicide
Each of the above depressive symptoms can complicate treatment for obesity; for example, having low energy, motivation, and fatigue reduce the likelihood of following through with workout routines, taking medications, complying with treatment plans, or adhering to nutritional recommendations. Furthermore, family members are affected by partners and children who are depressed, as it can be difficult living with a depressed individual who may be easily irritated or has little to no interest in doing anything fun. Not surprisingly, children of depressed parents are at higher risk for their own psychiatric problems, interpersonal difficulties, and academic challenges.
RECOMMENDATIONS TO REDUCE THE RISKS OF OBESITY AND MENTAL HEALTH IMPLICATIONS
- Seek professional help – Just like you go to a doctor to treat diabetes or go to a mechanic to fix your car, seek professional counseling/psychotherapy to treat depression or other mental health illnesses.
- Make lifestyle changes – Implement longterm health driven changes to your diet and exercise routines rather than temporary ones.
- Manage stress – Stress can zap your energy leaving you tired and irritable, so manage it actively by incorporating coping skills such as meditation, exercise, or play into your daily routines.
- Make exercise fun – Discover alternative ways to get exercise by joining a group fitness class, enrolling in a martial arts school, taking dance lessons, going for a bike ride, or training with a friend.
- Take a hike – The magnificence of nature can be therapeutic so go for a hike at a nearby trail to burn some calories and reflect on life.
- Limit TV – Keep TV out of children’s rooms and limit TV time. Instead encourage children to participate in sports or other physical activities that foster moral and social development.
- Get plenty of sleep – Lack of sleep not only impacts your energy level but also your mood and concentration so get to bed early on a regular basis. Create nighttime wind down routines to relax and promote good sleep.
- Eat in moderation – Do not supersize your meals, instead eat smaller, recommended portions. Don’t forget to manage your stress as it can increase emotional eating.
- Eat healthy foods – Avoid greasy, fatty, processed, fried foods and put down sugary drinks such as sodas. Eat more fruits and vegetables and drink lots of water. Make healthy snacks easily accessible at home.
- Make it a family event – Working out with your partner can be motivating and reinvigorating to your relationship while going to a park with your children to play can create stronger bonds and teach family values.
- Lead by example – You are your children’s biggest role model, if you start eating fruits and veggies and begin exercising so will they.
Author: Dr. Yoendry Torres, Clinical Psychologist