Relationship Between Emotions and Obesity

In this module, we explore the relationship between emotions and obesity. We examine the ways people cope with their emotions and how those coping mechanisms might interact with weight gain or loss. We also discuss how underlying mental-health issues such as depression and anxiety can influence weight.

The link between your emotions and your weight is significant, and learning how to understand what you are feeling and to address any possible issues will be a major part of any weight-loss strategy. Mental health and physical health are linked, and improving both can be an effective way to make positive changes in your life.

Is There a Normal Way to Feel About Having Excess Weight?

There are many emotions that you might experience because of having excess weight. You might feel sad, angry, frustrated, disgusted, anxious, or stressed. You might not be able to make any sense of your emotions, or you might have no idea how you are feeling at all. Maybe you have been dealing with underlying difficulties like depression or anxiety, and you feel that your problems have caused your weight gain. Or, you could have gained weight first and then began to experience negative emotions leading to depression, anxiety, or other issues (Scott et al, 2008).

In children and adolescents, excess weight can lead to low self-esteem, increased sadness, loneliness, or nervousness (Strauss, 2000). Children and adolescents also might have developed an underlying issue, like depression, and then became overweight. Some researchers have found that children and adolescents with major depressive disorder (MDD) might be at an increased risk for becoming overweight later in life (McElroy et al, 2004). 

Children and adolescents can experience a wide range of emotions about their excess weight.

The bottom line is that there is no “normal” way to feel about having excess weight. You can feel many different emotions depending on your own experience and nature. Recognizing how you are feeling, and when you started to feel that way, and then deciding where to go next are all important steps in improving your overall mental and physical health.

How Am I Likely to React When Others Tell Me That I Should Lose Weight?

Weight gain often provokes negative comments or criticism from others. These comments can come from family, friends, co-workers, classmates, bosses, children, or even doctors. Some people believe that weight is under the control of the individual and that weight gain is therefore the result of that person’s own choices (Crandall et al, 2001). This can lead to more negative interactions by overweight or obese individuals with others. In dealing with these stigmatizing situations or comments, people react in a variety of ways (Myers & Rosen, 1999; Puhl & Brownell, 2006), including heading off negative comments using positive self-talk; relying on faith, religion, or prayer; eating more food; and seeking social support from others.

These reactions are both positive and negative. How you tend to respond to these situations can affect your weight. Consider whether you have ever experienced a stigmatizing situation. Think about how you reacted. If those comments or situations caused you to become upset or stressed and your response to those emotions was to eat more, this could have caused you to gain more weight. It is never a good feeling when someone tells you that you need to lose weight, but learning to deal with these comments and the emotions they trigger in a healthy way is an important part of weight loss.

Why Might I Feel Helpless or Angry?

Helplessness and anger are normal emotions to experience if you are dealing with excess weight. There are several reasons why you might feel this way, including trying to achieve society’s ideal body type, having underlying mental- health issues, experiencing weight cycling (more on this in a moment), or being stressed:

The Thin Ideal

One reason for these feelings, especially if you are female, might be that you have internalized society’s “thin-ideal” body type (see Figure 2-1). TV, movies, advertisements, and other forms of media bombard society with images of thin women that can be difficult to ignore; they influence how you feel about your body (Thompson & Heinberg, 1999). Seeing and internalizing this ideal image of thinness but not being able to achieve it can surely be frustrating and lead to a negative body image or body dissatisfaction. Studies have shown that internalization of the thin-ideal is a key factor in body dissatisfaction in women (both in adults and adolescents) (Botta, 1999; Thompson & Stice, 2001; Yamamiya et al, 2005). Addressing this internalization, and understanding realistic and healthy body standards is a big step toward improving mental and physical health.

Underlying Mental-Health Issues

If you are currently struggling with depression, anxiety, or another underlying mental-health issue, this could be a contributing factor to your feelings of helplessness and anger. Treating these mental-health issues first is an important step to losing weight successfully and over the long term (McElroy et al, 2004). If you have not found the right help to get to the bottom of these mental-health issues first, you are likely to experience many negative emotions. Without first addressing your mental health, it could be a struggle to consistently keep weight off.

Weight Cycling

Weight cycling, or, yo-yo dieting, is when you repeatedly engage in a pattern of losing weight for a period and then regain the weight back, or gain even more weight. Weight cycling could be associated with lower life satisfaction and disturbed eating, and possibly puts you at an increased risk for binge eating (Brownell & Rodin, 1994). These ups and downs might be making you feel helpless and angry, making it even more difficult to stay motivated on any weight-loss plan. Working to find the best sustainable weight-management plan, despite your highs and lows, can be a challenge. If weight cycling has been a serious issue for you, it could be helpful to work with a doctor or mental-health professional to modify your plan.

Stress

Stress is a contributing factor to weight gain and negative emotions for many individuals. Many people tend to respond to stress by eating more. In one study, adult women who reported stress also reported a greater drive to eat, including feelings of binge eating, hunger, and ineffective attempts to control their eating (Groesz et al, 2012). Other researchers have proposed that having a constant stressor in your life causes cortisol (a stress hormone) to be released in your body, which can cause you to crave more energy-dense (high-calorie) foods or cause you to gain and retain more fat in your abdominal area (Torres & Nowson, 2007).

A recent study found that in adult men and women (54–87 years old), levels of cortisol (found in hair samples), were positively associated with persistence of obesity (the participants were obese when measured at multiple time points over a 4-year period). Obese individuals also had significantly higher cortisol concentrations in their hair samples than did the normal weight and overweight participants (Jackson et al, 2017). In another study, hair cortisol levels were also found to be increased in obese children (ages 8–12) when compared with a control group of normal-weight children (Veldhorst et al, 2014). It can be very frustrating to try to lose weight while your body is fighting against the weight loss due to chronic stressors. Think about your life and identify any consistent stressors. Is there anything you can do to decrease your stress?

Are Feelings of Depression Normal?

Before discussing the relationship between depression and weight gain, it is important for us to define depression. There are differences between feeling sad and being clinically depressed. Clinical depression (also known as the aforementioned MDD) is diagnosed when your sadness interferes with your everyday life. When your depressive symptoms get in the way of your work, school, social life, or other important areas, you might be experiencing depression. MDD is characterized by a variety of symptoms that can be recalled by the mnemonic (or memory tool) SIG: E CAPS. Each letter of the mnemonic stands for a different symptom.

S: Sleep (increased or decreased)

I: Interests (decreased)

G: Guilt or preoccupation of thought 

E: Energy (decreased)

C: Concentration ability (decreased)

A: Appetite (either increased or decreased)

P: Psychomotor (agitation or retardation [i.e., being too slowed down]) 

S: Suicidal thoughts (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

In addition, there must be depressed mood (most of the day, every day, or a marked decrease in interest or pleasure in almost all activities (i.e., anhedonia).

When these symptoms become so severe that they cause your work or school performance to suffer, you should seek help from a mental-health professional.

In thinking about the relationship between obesity and depression, it is helpful to think about it as a two-way relationship. You might have developed depression first and then gained weight, or you might have gained weight first and then developed depression (Figure 2-2).

In one study, researchers found that obese adults have a 55% increased risk of developing depression over time, and that depressed people have a 58% increased risk of becoming obese (Luppino et al, 2010). Another study found that adults who either were experiencing depression or had a life-time diagnosis of depression were each 60% more likely than those without depression to be obese (Strine et al, 2008). Children and adolescents with depression might also be at an increased risk for becoming overweight later in life (Goodman & Whitaker, 2002; McElroy et al, 2004).

It might be that due to depression, you lost interest in physical activity and this contributed to weight gain. Obesity might have contributed to other health problems or a physical disability, and your depression worsened (Dixon, Dixon, & O’Brien, 2003). If you were being treated for depression and were prescribed an antidepressant, the antidepressant might also have contributed to your weight gain. Certain antidepressants are more likely than others to cause weight gain (Fava, 1999).

There are many ways that depression and obesity interact. If you are experiencing depression or depressive symptoms along with weight gain, it is important to understand when the symptoms began in relation to your weight gain. In working to lose weight, it will be helpful to address any depressive symptoms with a professional to understand the root cause of your weight gain, especially if your depressive symptoms occurred first (McElroy et al, 2004).

What Should I Do If I Feel Discouraged, Frustrated, or Hopeless?

Seeking support can be helpful when you are feeling especially discouraged, frustrated, or hopeless. Whether you need encouragement, motivation, advice, or accountability, there are many resources available. The support you need might come from a family member or friend, a support group, a doctor, or from on-line sources. Think about how you are feeling, and which type of support might be best for you.

Face-to-face support groups like those offered by Weight Watchers provide encouragement, accountability, and motivation. Although Weight Watchers itself is an all-encompassing program that includes meal plans, those who attend face-to-face meetings tend to lose more weight (Mitchell et al, 2013). You can find other face-to-face support groups on-line, and they vary by city. Try searching through ObesityAction.org or Overeatersanonymous.org, to see if there are support groups in your area. Your doctor or mental-health professional might also have groups that meet weekly through their offices. Ask your doctor or therapist to help you find the right group for your specific needs.

On-line support groups offer a convenient way to receive the encouragement or advice you need while being able to remain relatively anonymous. In one study involving adults who visit the website SparkPeople.com, users enjoyed the convenience of the site, the ability to remain anonymous if they wanted, and the overall non-judgmental interactions on the site. Users’ main activities on the site included giving or receiving personalized advice, encouragement, and motivation through shared stories of weight loss, seeking accountability or holding others accountable for their weight-loss goals, or participating in friendly competitions (Hwang et al, 2010). Hearing from others who have been on a similar journey can provide comfort, hope, and motivation in a time of hopelessness. If you do not feel comfortable participating in a face-to-face support group, the ease and anonymity of an on-line support group could be beneficial. Many programs, including Weight Watchers, offer on-line support in addition to in-person meetings. Search on-line for a forum or network that looks helpful to you, or ask your doctor or therapist to connect you with one.

If your support networks are not helping, and your emotions, weight, or other health issues are negatively affecting your everyday life, reach out to a doctor or other mental-health professional. Doctors who specialize in weight loss and weight-related issues can help you to navigate your options and determine the best resources for you.

How Can I Cope Better with My Emotions?

Learning to cope with your emotions in a healthy way will be a key component in managing your weight. Studies have found that obese adults have problems identifying and regulating their emotions (Kass et al, 2017). Not being able to identify and regulate emotions could lead to unhealthy eating behaviors and coping mechanisms and ultimately cause weight gain. Stress and negative emotions have been shown to make people eat (Groesz et al, 2012; Macht & Simons, 2000). Take a look at the statements in Table 2-1, a selection of items taken from the 52-item Eating and Appraisal Due to Emotions and Stress (EADES) questionnaire (Ozier et al, 2007), and think about how much you agree or disagree with each.Learning to pay attention to and understand your feelings, especially those feelings surrounding your eating habits, can help you to identify any problem areas and to develop healthy coping strategies. Understanding your feelings and habits is important not only for losing weight, but also for your overall mental health.

One strategy to improve emotional coping is mindfulness. Mindfulness involves learning to be present in the moment, to be aware of what you are experiencing, and to be aware of your bodily sensations in that moment. In brief, mindfulness means to pay attention (Germer, 2004). It is often defined as observing the immediate experience openly and without judgment (Bishop et al, 2004). There are different types of mindfulness-based therapies, and there have been many studies involving these different therapies as interventions for overweight and obese individuals. Mindfulness shows promise as a weight-loss intervention and could be a useful tool in learning to cope with your emotions in a healthy way.

One study about using mindfulness to decrease emotional eating invited half of participants (overweight and obese adult women) to take part in a mindful eating and stress-reduction program over the course of 9 weeks. Participants in this intervention group attended weekly 2.5-hour classes in addition to a final 7- hour retreat. The researchers found that participants in the intervention group were successful in increasing their mindfulness and responsiveness to bodily sensations, reducing their anxiety and eating response to external food cues, and reducing their emotional eating when compared with those in the control group. Additionally, those participants who reported the greatest improvements in mindfulness, responsiveness to bodily sensations, and chronic stress lost the most abdominal fat (Daubenmier et al, 2011).

In another mindfulness study, a group of adult participants took part in a Mindful Eating and Living (MEAL) intervention. The participants took MEAL classes for 6 weeks, with the goal of learning to understand hunger and satiety cues (clues to feeling full and satisfied) as well as emotional and cognitive states surrounding eating. All participants increased their mindfulness and cognitive restraint around eating, and decreased their weight, eating disinhibition, binge eating, and perceived stress (Dalen et al, 2010).

A third study involving adult women found that after attending 8 weekly sessions of a mindfulness-based intervention, participants showed significantly less body dissatisfaction as well as decreased emotional eating, external eating, and food cravings when compared with those in the control group (Alberts et al, 2012).

Speak to your doctor or mental-health professional about which type of mindfulness-based therapy might be right for you, especially if you believe that you need help sorting out your emotions as they relate to your eating habits.

Do I Need to Go to a Specialized Weight-Reduction Center to Lose Weight?

Yes, if it is recommended by your doctor or a professional counselor. If you are struggling with obesity and physical health problems, working with a weight- reduction center might be a useful option. Keep in mind that these treatment centers can vary in efficacy, and it is important to consider whether the weight- loss center is promoting a quick fix to lose weight or a cohesive plan that involves not only diet change, but also exercise, social support, and behavioral changes. Your doctor or mental-health professional should be able to guide you to effective weight-loss centers in your area.

Should I Try Weight Loss Supplements?

Certainly, you can’t rely on a single food or supplement to burn fat. When it comes to weight loss, it’s always best to do regular workouts and reduce your calorie intake by avoiding comfort food.

That said, when used as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle, natural fat burners may accelerate weight loss by either increasing metabolism or decreasing appetite. They might help you burn slightly more calories every day, gradually increasing weight loss.

Resurge is of the most popular weight loss supplements that promise to help you shed pounds and sleep better. Because studies have shown that sleep deprivation is associated with deficiencies of growth hormone and elevated levels of cortisol, both of which contribute to obesity.

While other supplements promote nutritional factors, meal replacement forms, appetite suppression, or similar effects, Resurge boosts your body’s metabolism by increasing your core temperature.

Apart from that, Resurge might also be good for your mental health. Its ingredient Ashwagandha may have a calming effect on anxiety symptoms. According to a study in humans conducted in 2019 researchers found that taking 240 milligrams (mg) of ashwagandha per day greatly reduced stress levels. There was a reduction in cortisol levels, which is a stress hormone.

However, before making any purchases, you might want to read some Resurge reviews because the supplement industry is rife with scams.

It should be noted that pills or supplements are usually not recommended for children, pregnant and breastfeeding women. Some supplements might contain stimulants such as caffeine. You should avoid using them if you already suffer from emotional problems because stimulants can cause insomnia, especially if you are sensitive to caffeine.

Although the formula of Resurge doesn’t have any stimulants, you should still talk with your doctor before you start taking the supplement.

Should I Seek Professional Counseling or Psychiatric Care?

Professional counseling or psychiatric care can be helpful for several reasons. If you are dealing with underlying depression, anxiety, or other mental-health issues, seeking professional help would be a positive step toward improving your health. If you experienced depression prior to your weight gain, addressing the depression with a professional counselor or psychiatrist first is an important step in successful weight loss (McElroy et al, 2004). If your depression or anxiety symptoms are severely interfering with your day-to-day life or if you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, you should seek help immediately.

If you believe that part of your weight gain stems from poor emotional regulation and you would like help learning how to cope with your emotions in a healthy way, reach out to a professional counselor or psychiatrist. A mental- health professional can provide you with the building blocks that you need to understand your emotions and help you to change your behavior to cope positively. They might also recommend specific group therapies or mindfulness interventions that can help you learn more about your emotions and your relationship with food.

If you think that you have an eating disorder, such as binge-eating disorder, you should seek professional counseling or psychiatric care. Individuals with binge-eating disorder generally eat large amounts of food in a short period and feel an overall lack of control during the episode. They might also eat large quantities of food when they are not actually hungry and feel embarrassed, disgusted, depressed, and guilty after the eating episodes (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Mental-health professionals can work with you to change any unhealthy behaviors and work through eating disorder symptoms. Mental health alone is not an answer to weight management, but it should be a part of any weight-loss plan, along with diet, exercise, and other doctor recommendations.

Am I Likely to Feel the Same Way About My Weight Throughout My Life?

You are likely to go through many ups and downs in your life, both emotionally and in regard to your weight. Your feelings will fluctuate. Learning to understand your feelings over time and to adjust when needed, to reduce stress, or change coping behaviors will help you to stay in control. By doing so, you will likely have more ups than downs. Understanding your emotions is just as important as is diet and exercise when it comes to managing your weight, and it is imperative that you are working on all of these areas to maintain a balanced life and a healthy weight.

Finding the right weight-management strategies for you and changing your lifestyle to implement those strategies successfully should lead to improvements in your overall physical and mental health. Addressing any underlying depression, anxiety, or other mental-health issues will also go a long way toward improving how you feel about yourself and your weight. Pay attention to your feelings, and do not be afraid to speak to others about what you are going through. If you need help sorting through your feelings, reach out to a friend, family member, doctor, or mental-health professional.

Leave a Comment