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Obesity, or Mental Health: Which Came First?

Obesity, or Mental Health: Which Came First?


Mental health as a concept is a very difficult one to navigate. We are still in the early stages of figuring out how it relates to situations, biochemistry, and social attitudes. It is certainly part of the conversation when a major disaster or violent act occurs like the latest school shooting or a hurricane leaving destruction in its wake. We are just now coming around to talking about how our mental health impacts our everyday lives. So, it makes sense that the presence of obesity issues and bariatric surgery will spark the following question; Is Obesity the cause of mental health issues or is it a symptom of them?

This is the sort of question that does not have cut and dry answers because the brain, the body, and our environment does not exist in a vacuum. It would be asking like what came first, the chicken or an egg. It is a paradox.  So, the best that we can do to answer the question is to look into the research we do have regarding obesity, depression, and bariatric surgery.

What They Have in Common

There are a lot of commonalities between depression and obesity. More than what most people realize. Both of them, for starters, are complex conditions that involve genetic, environmental, and physical factors. They are both a widespread issue in America, that has only increased in adults for the last few decades. People spend as much time and resources fighting to cope with or remove the condition. They also cost the global economy in trillions of dollars.

That doesn’t even cover the stigma and societal tension that are related to both issues. When people are obese, the general society around them either feels the need to interfere in a positive or negative way for the sake of the health of the obese person. Alternatively, they will say nothing because they believe it is a social faux pas.

The same thing can be said about depression or any other mental illness. If it is not a clearly visible condition, people will either feel the need to interfere positively or negatively. Or, again, they will simply not talk about it because it is impolite or not their personal business.

These similarities muddy the water a little in terms of figuring out which one starts the other.

The Argument of Depression Coming From Obesity

This is an idea that has been around longer.  Even Harvard back in 2004 recognized this, “Not so long ago, it was commonly believed that overweight and obese people were compulsive eaters, anxious, depressed, under stress, or trying to compensate for deficiencies in their lives.”

There is backed up by a study that was conducted by the Journal of Preventative Medicine and Public Health,” We attempted to overcome the endogeneity problem by using a pseudo-panel approach and found that increases in the BMI increased depression days (or being depressed) to a statistically significant extent, with a large effect size.”

So, the basic argument here is obesity leads to stigmatization which leads to depression.

The Argument of Obesity from Depression

This is a newer argument with the hypothesis suggesting that obesity can be a symptom of depression. The idea stemmed from the notion that obese behavior can be a symptom of depression. Things like lethargy, overeating, lack of social interaction, all fall under the same umbrella as signs of depression. In fact, they are listed as warning signs for psychologists and family members to look out for if they think someone they know is depressed.

The very same Harvard article pointed out, “Additionally, overweight people are also more likely to lose the psychological benefits of exercise. If they feel rejected, unattractive, or suffer social discrimination, the emotional strain may cause further weight gain. The problem is worse if they fail to lose weight and are blamed (or blame themselves) for lack of self-control.”

So, this argument is stating that Depression leads to obesity coping mechanisms, which leads to obesity, which leads to depression.

What We Know for Certain

While we can’t be 100% sure which came first, what we do know is that they do play a part with one another. Both obesity and depression carry a genetic code in common, thanks to both issues being a result of similar hormonal imbalances. That’s why 50% of obese people suffer from depression. There are even hormonal imbalances so severe that people after bariatric surgery are much more likely to seek out treatment for their mental health.  These are things in common we can’t ignore. Especially if we are going to find a way to reverse the severe damage of obesity rates in this country.

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