Researchers Focus on Connection Between Body Image and Mental Health
> 2/4/2008 2:41:47 PM

Obesity contributes to a host of serious health problems, but it turns out that all the fretting over weight could be worse. In one recent study, a team of researchers demonstrated the importance of considering the impact of obesity and even the perception of obesity on an individual's mental health. In examining body image and the desire to lose weight in a group of subjects, researchers from Columbia University found that those who wanted to lose the greatest amount of weight also reported feeling worse about their physical and mental health, regardless of their actual weight.

The study, which appears in the March edition of the American Journal of Public Health, involved 170,577 American adults, all of whom reported their actual weight as well as their ideal weight. In addition, the subjects noted the number of days during previous month when they felt mentally or physically unhealthy. The data revealed that those who were most dissatisfied with their actual weight said they experienced more unhealthy days. Men who wanted to lose 10% of their body weight reported 0.9 unhealthy days, while men wanting to lose 20% of their body weight reported 2.7. For women, the gap was even larger. Women wanting to lose 10% of their body weight said they experienced 1.6 unhealthy days, and those who wanted to lose 20% of their body weight experienced 4.3. When the researchers controlled for age and body mass index (BMI), they found that the difference between actual and ideal weight was more predictive of how many unhealthy days a person would report than BMI. These results indicate the extent to which a person's dissatisfaction with their weight could negatively impact their mental and physical health.

The researchers suggest that the daily stress experienced by overweight or obese individuals due to the stigma attached to obesity perpetuates their unhealthy weight and contributes to other health problems, including hypertension and diabetes. Of course, research has long demonstrated the interconnectedness of obesity and mental health. Mood and anxiety disorders in particular have been linked with obesity. Conversely, weight problems could be an offshoot of these and other physical or psychiatric disorders. Whether they are a cause or a result of obesity, these conditions could contribute to the individual's perception of their body, their desire to lose weight, and their overall physical and mental health. Still, some other factor, such as personality, could also be at play, causing an individual to feel dissatisfaction with their health, including their weight.

Obesity is a complicated problem that likely stems from a number of factors and affects both physical and mental health. The authors of this study suggest that a better way for dealing with the problem would be to emphasize developing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle over simply advocating for weight loss and a smaller body size. Obesity continues to be a pressing issue, but as we continue to discover the various reasons why a person may become overweight or obese, we will be better prepared to offer help to those that need it.

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