Is there a link between obesity and mental health?

Niamh Hennessy
Lead Dietitian, Cromwell Hospital
30 November 2023
Next review due November 2026

Obesity is complex, as many factors can influence your weight. Living with obesity can affect both your physical and mental health. Here I’ll explore the connection between obesity and mental health. I’ll also share some tips for maintaining a healthy weight and boosting your mental wellbeing.

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How is mental health and obesity related?

Studies have shown that being overweight or obese can increase your risk of mental health issues. But it also works the other way too. Some evidence suggests that having poor mental health may put you at an increased risk of becoming overweight or obese.

This doesn’t mean that your mental health is the only thing that can influence your risk of becoming overweight. But for some people, it may be a contributing factor.

Similarly, if you are overweight or obese, you won’t automatically have mental health issues. However, the risks are increased for some of the reasons listed below.

Can being depressed cause obesity?

Depression can lead to weight gain for a number of reasons. Firstly, being depressed can make you feel more tired than usual. This may lead to reduced physical activity for some people. If you are very sedentary, you’re at an increased risk of weight gain as you will be using less calories during the day.

Depression can sometimes also lead to overeating. This can cause you to consume lots of calories, which when combined with inactivity may promote weight gain. If your depression is linked to drinking lots of alcohol, this too can contribute to weight gain. Over time, weight gain can lead to obesity if left untreated.

Some people find depression causes them to lose their appetite. For others, their appetite can increase, which makes it harder to control portion sizes. Additionally, some medications used to treat depression, such as selective serotonin uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can lead you to put on weight too.

It might be a combination of these factors that leads to weight gain during depression.

Does obesity lead to mental health issues?

Sometimes it’s hard to say whether obesity is made worse because of a mental health issue, or if obesity worsens existing mental health conditions. But evidence shows being overweight or obese may affect your mental state in three main ways.

Biological reasons

Being overweight can increase the number of inflammatory chemicals in your body. This can affect the way your brain works and may lead to a higher rate of depression.

Social reasons

People living with obesity can experience discrimination or stigma which can affect confidence and may lead to loneliness or feelings of isolation.

Psychological reasons

Being overweight or obese may lead to feelings of shame, or low self-esteem which can worsen mental health difficulties in some cases.

How can I reduce my risk of obesity?

Reducing your risk of obesity is likely to be personal to you. For some people, this could mean talking to a doctor about a particular medicine which may be increasing their appetite. For others, it might be taking a look at the barriers to exercise. For example, seeing a physio if you have back pain that makes it uncomfortable to be active.

It’s also necessary to avoid consuming more calories than you need on a regular basis. This means, for most adults, aiming to keep under 2000 calories per day for a woman and 2500 calories per day for a man.

And, if you need to lose weight, then aim for a sustainable weight loss approach. This means focusing on healthy, balanced meals in moderate portions. For most people a modest calorie deficit of around 500 calories a day is recommended. In some cases, you might need to work with a dietitian to create a tailored calorie restriction plan that’s right for you.

Other tips for weight management are:

  • increasing physical activity
  • managing stress
  • seeking appropriate mental health support
  • getting good quality sleep

How can I improve my mental wellbeing?

If your mental health is causing you to be less active than you’d like, or if you feel you eat more when stressed or upset, then seeking support may help. Speak to your GP, who might be able to offer you talking therapies, medication, or other support as available.

And you can also consider some self-help measures that involve:

  • socialising
  • taking time out to rest and recover
  • finding a type of movement you enjoy
  • reading or other hobbies
  • reducing alcohol consumption

Ultimately, the link between obesity and mental health is complicated. But taking steps to improve your mental health and manage your weight is likely to improve your general health and wellbeing.

Do you know how healthy you truly are? Bupa health assessments give you a clear overview of your health and a view of any future health risks. You'll receive a personal lifestyle action plan with health goals to reach for a happier, healthier you.

Niamh Hennessy
Niamh Hennessy
Lead Dietitian, Cromwell Hospital



Julia Ebbens, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

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