Weight and our mental health

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It’s obvious that the conversation around mental health is everywhere at the moment. And as a social movement, I think it is really positive to continue the conversation long-term to remove any sense of taboo from the discussions. It is an extremely complex issue, and while I am wary to jump on the bandwagon and discuss it as my experience is limited, I think it is worth looking at as many aspects as possible that can affect our mental health.

That’s why today’s post is about the link between weight & mental health. It’s another piece in the extremely complex web of mental health issues that deserves some discussion, and I believe it is one that may be set to broaden in the coming years.

It is now common knowledge that more people are overweight in Ireland, and across the world, than are malnourished.

A European study reported in the Irish Times recently found that Ireland is set to become the most obese country in Europe within the next decade.

And we can see it everywhere – people are getting bigger, eating more convenience food, becoming more sedentary and getting more weight-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease than previous generations.

Now all of this is not news to you – we hear this kind of information on all our media, every day. We KNOW that eating poorly and in excess is bad for our health. We KNOW that not exercising has detrimental effects on our wellbeing. And we KNOW that not taking care of what our kids eat and how much exercise they get can have long-term repercussions for their health, as they get older.

But for many, weight is not just felt physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.

Do a Google search and you will find many well-documented connections between depression and obesity. Many people struggle for years with being overweight, or yo-yoing on the scales and possibly going from one extreme to the other.

Again, we KNOW that our self-esteem is intrinsically linked to our self-image and how we believe we’re perceived by others. But is that the only factor affecting our mental health and how we view ourselves if we are carrying extra weight?

According to the website http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/mental-health-weight-self-esteem/ “Studies have found that people who are overweight are “more likely to report that emotional problems had affected their work or social activities, and were less likely to have felt calm and peaceful in the month prior to the study.” That’s a lot more serious than “just” feeling low self-esteem when glancing in the mirror; it’s a pervasive, perhaps constant blend of feeling both depressed and anxious at home, at work, and among friends.”

Again, I’m sure this is not new information for you. We have heard similar studies reported through conventional media. Or we have read articles about the impact that being overweight can have on our mental health.

But I think that sometimes we can feel a bit detached from this overarching concept of “being overweight negatively affects your mental health”.

A few weeks ago, I decided to tackle this topic in my Unislim classes. I wanted to look at real people who had been overweight for much of their lives and had managed to tackle this by losing weight in a healthy and sustainable way. In all cases, the members I looked at did not have any underlying mental health issues. I know that in many situations, there can be a chicken-and-egg effect when it comes to overeating and mental health, and again this is a very complicated topic and one I will look at in more detail at another time.

So for my talks, I picked some Unislim members from around the country who had lost a considerable amount of weight, and had also managed to keep themselves at a healthy weight for a considerable period of time. As expected, each of these members all had different lifestyles and different weight-loss stories. But regardless of their backgrounds, for all of them the decision to start losing weight had to be first made in their heads.

For whatever reason, they had to mentally confirm that they were not happy with their current situation and make the decision to take action.

Looking at each of the individuals, I found that the day-to-day struggles and quality of life issues that people can feel if they’re not happy with the way they look were pretty obvious.

As I mentioned, although each individual had their own motivational drivers to lose weight, what is common in each story is a trigger –a specific point in their lives where they said

“Ok, I cannot continue like this any more”.

This might have been related to their medical health, feelings of low self-esteem, or concerns about how their weight was affecting their closest relationships. And each of these “triggers” had a direct impact on their self-esteem, which in turn had an impact on their mental health.

And following on from that, another common thread is the comments that these members made about what they could do, how they felt, and what improvements they found in their lives after they had achieved their weight-loss goals.

Improved confidence, self-worth and more enjoyment in being around friends and family were the most frequent.

Finally, one other commonality that’s worth noting is how much more confident and socialable these members became after they started to lose weight. With relation to taking care of our mental health, this is important.

If we are unhappy with ourselves and withdraw from social occasions, meeting friends etc., we lose the social interaction that is so vital for our mental wellbeing.

As humans, we rely on community and social interaction. And anything – be it self-esteem issues based on being over-weight, or feeling socially uncomfortable, or a sense of not being good enough – that removes us from interacting socially, can be damaging to our mental health.

Of course I know that this is only one small facet of the mental health discussion. I am also fully aware that losing weight will not solve all our problems. It won’t turn your life into the perfect Stepford ideal, and there are many other serious issues that affect mental health and can cause anxiety, depression and other serious illnesses.

But for some, losing excess weight that is causing you to feel unhappy about yourself can definitely help you feel so much better about yourself, and make you happier in the person you are. And as a step in the right direction, who wouldn’t want that?


Image from https://publichealthwatch.wordpress.com/2014/08/10/will-losing-weight-really-make-you-happy-new-study-says-probably-not/


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