Is Obesity More of a Physical or Mental Health Issue?


According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately a third of the 40% population of overweight adults in the world suffers from obesity (Wimmelmann et al., 2019). This number has been on the rise in the past two decades. For many years, researchers have debated whether obesity is more of a physical health issue that causes mental problems or more of a mental health issue that has physical effects. Numerous studies have been conducted to evaluate the relationship between the condition and mental health. They have concluded that there is a relationship between the two, especially mood and anxiety disorders. These conclusions mean that an obese person is at a higher risk of developing depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder when compared to an individual who is not overweight This issue is important because of its health and social implications, especially among children and adolescents. It has been linked with depression, low self-esteem, loss of confidence, and poor body image. Therefore, obesity is more of a mental health issue that results in physical issues.

Obesity and Mental Health

In the past decade, obesity has become a public health issue in the United States, with its prevalence increasing significantly among children, adolescents, and youths. The American Psychiatric Association has not yet classified it as a mental health issue, thus excluding overweight people from any form of psychiatric diagnosis (Menon & Rajan, 2017). However, several studies have found a strong relationship between obesity and depression and anxiety. Past research studies have established a link between being overweight and mood disorders. For instance, public surveys conducted in the US and Canada have revealed a correlation between obesity and symptoms as well as a history of depression (Sarwer & Polonsky, 2016). Moreover, they have shown that psychological distress is a common phenomenon among overweight people. In the US, the coexistence of the disease and depression are more prevalent among women than in men (Menon & Rajan, 2017). This association is stronger among people who are below the age of 65 years. Obesity has been described as a mental health issue because of the various psychological factors associated with being overweight (Davies, 2016). Its management is more effective if approached from the perspective of a mental issue rather than a physical one.

Obesity as a Mental Health Issue

There is a propensity among many obese people to feel unattractive and rejected because of their body weight. As a result, they are likely to suffer psychological distress from being socially discriminated by other people (Sarwer & Polonsky, 2016). In cases where obese people have tried to reduce their weight to healthy levels and failed, they are accused of lacking determination and self-control. Such accusations increase emotional strain and psychological distress, and could lead to physical effects such as further weight gain and isolation (Menon & Rajan, 2017). The findings of several research studies have associated obesity with higher levels of mental distress, especially among adolescents and adults. Moreover, obese people are at a higher risk of developing psychiatric disorders than nonobese people (Wimmelmann et al., 2019). Obesity has several social and psychological effects that impact the lives of individuals. For instance, the stigma and discrimination associated with being overweight could cause psychological disturbances that could lead to substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.

Several research studies have found out that there is a relatively high number of mentally ill people with obesity, relative to the general population. For example, a study conducted in Maryland among people receiving psychiatric care revealed that their body mass index (BMI) was almost 50 percent more than those in the control group (Davies, 2016). The WHO contends that individuals with a history of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are at a very high risk of developing the disease (Sarwer & Polonsky, 2016). In that regard, obese people can easily develop psychiatric disorders and people with psychiatric disorders can easily become obese. Obesity is more of a mental than a physical health issue because of its influence on individuals’ thinking patterns (Davies, 2016). Overcoming weight problems can be easily achieved through focusing more on changing one’s core beliefs rather than engaging in physical activity. For example, the belief that one is genetically predisposed to be huge is a psychological hindrance to achieving a healthy weight because it would be futile to fight nature.

A poor self-image, low self-esteem, social stigma, and a lack of confidence are examples of the effects of obesity that can be associated with psychiatric disorders. An obese person can become depressed because they do not like how they look or due to the inability to handle the stigma that is associated with being overweight (Davies, 2016). Depression and low self-esteem are examples of psychological issues that are prevalent among the obese (Menon & Rajan, 2017). They occur even if the individual does not have a history of mental illness. Factors such as age, gender, level of education, and socioeconomic status influence the strength of the link between obesity and mental illness (Wimmelmann et al., 2019). For example, women are more likely to develop a mental illness if they are obese because of the inclination to judge themselves based on how they look.

Psychological Factors in Obesity

Psychological factors, more than physical factors, play the most critical part in the progression of obesity from a problem with weight management to a disordered condition. Many people with weight issues struggle psychologically with various challenges, including negative thinking, low self-worth, and emotional instability (Menon & Rajan, 2017). If unmitigated, they could develop into more serious emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. These cause mental anguish that could result in physical manifestations such as aversion to physical activity, overeating, social isolation, and poor self-care (Sarwer & Polonsky, 2016). Psychiatrists have outlined several psychological factors that hinder individuals from dealing with the issue of obesity successfully. They include the avoidance of emotions, low self-worth, self-criticism, negative core beliefs, binge eating, and poor body image (van Vuuren et al., 2019). Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be used to mitigate these problems by making the individuals feel more in control and replacing negative thoughts and beliefs with positive ones.

Body image can be defined as an individual’s perception of how they look with regard to body shape and size. In many instances, this is shaped and highly influenced by societal and cultural factors due to social conditioning (Sarwer & Polonsky, 2016). Many overweight people are dissatisfied with their bodies because society defines overweight people as too huge to function normally. Society defines beauty as slender and median weight. The influence of mass media and online marketing on the ideal body type and shape has become a source of distress for obese people (Wimmelmann et al., 2019). They have been conditioned to think that there is something wrong with them because they do not meet the societal standards of beauty (Menon & Rajan, 2017). As a result, they usually experience a dive in their self-esteem and self-worth due to negative comparisons with other people. The aftermath of protracted periods of failing in the management of these emotions is the development of low mood, anxiety, and depression (van Vuuren et al., 2019). Their thoughts become compromised, and they begin to see flaws in their physical appearance that are a constant cause of sadness or misery. These could cause isolation for fear of being judged or criticized (Wimmelmann et al., 2019). In such cases, individuals become preoccupied with how they look and comparing themselves with others.


Research has increasingly supported the argument that obesity is more of a mental than a physical health issue. Studies have established a correlation between the condition and psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. There are several psychological factors that are associated with obesity. They include low self-worth, low self-esteem, negative beliefs, self-criticism, avoidance of emotion, and poor self-image. The failure of individuals to manage these factors leads to more serious disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and depression. Obese people’s preoccupation with how they look and what they weigh is a cause of distress that, if unchecked, could lead to serious mental health issues. Poor thinking habits and negative beliefs lead to unhealthy physical manifestations. For example, aversion to physical exercise, and overeating are physical issues that are caused by the aforementioned psychological factors. Physicians should try addressing obese from a mental perspective rather than a physical perspective.


Davies, N. (2016). Mental Illness and Obesity. Web.

Menon, V., & Rajan, T. (2017). Psychiatric disorders and obesity: A review of association studies. Journal of Postgraduate Medicine, 63(3), 182. Web.

Sarwer, D. B., & Polonsky, H. M. (2016). The Psychosocial Burden of Obesity. Endocrinology and Metabolism Clinics of North America, 45(3), 677–688. Web.

van Vuuren, C. L., Wachter, G. G., Veenstra, R., Rijnhart, J. J. M., van der Wal, M. F.,

Chinapaw, M. J. M., & Busch, V. (2019). Associations between overweight and mental health problems among adolescents, and the mediating role of victimization. BMC Public Health, 19(1). Web.

‌ Wimmelmann, C. L., Lund, R., Christensen, U., Osler, M., & Mortensen, E. L. (2016). Associations between obesity and mental distress in late midlife: results from a large Danish community sample. BMC Obesity, 3(1). Web.

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