Obesity in America


Associated with the leading causes of death in the U.S. and worldwide, obesity is a very complex disease with a variety of causes and effects. In Part 3 of this article series, I will present the effects of obesity on an individual’s mental health and personal well-being.

Many times, the discussion surrounding obesity concerns its impact on our medical health, such as causing hypertension and diabetes. However, there are well-known consequences to our well-being that are not often discussed. The relation is not one-sided, meaning that all elements of well-being connect and they all have a reciprocal effect on obesity. For example, the physical effects of obesity can cause negative social and mental effects, which can precipitate obesity.

There are different types of well-being; emotional, social, and occupational health. Studies on obesity and mental health have shown an increasing risk of low self-esteem, mood disorder, motivational disorders, eating problems, body image issues and social communication problems. Many individuals describe eating for emotional comfort, because they are bored, angry or experiencing other negative emotions.

Personal well-being is how people feel within themselves and achieve fulfillment in their lives. Obesity can affect personal well-being by preventing physical activity, limiting social interaction, as well as limiting emotional interaction with a significant other. In studies, people suffering from obesity have reported a lower self-rated body image and self-esteem score. This can limit an individual’s desire to engage in finding new relationships. From a social perspective, people with obesity may not feel like part of the community because they look different and feel disconnected to clubs, social groups and church.

Individuals who are morbidly obese may feel falsely judged for their weight as being slow, not intelligent, lazy or undesirable. While untrue, these pretenses can be difficult to overcome as a person looks to further their social and emotional well-being. They may feel limited by how they are perceived by others in a social or emotional relationship with their loved ones, their friends, or their spouse. People may have social issues because of embarrassment about their weight, which can lead to physical inactivity. They also may experience communication problems and can be less likely to get a job and have an overall smaller income. People can even be prevented from working if the occupation is physically demanding.

The effect on well-being is not limited to adults – children suffering from obesity can experience significant social and emotional effects. For a young child or adolescent, these effects can be more severe than for adults.

Obesity can affect personal well-being by preventing physical activity, limiting social interaction, as well as limiting emotional interaction with a significant other.

We have all heard the stories about the “happy fat person.” While that may provide some comfort for the adult, it is more myth than reality in the lives of most obese children. Not only are there health costs associated with childhood obesity, but a child’s weight problem is also intimately entangled in his emotional world.

For children who are overweight, living with excess pounds can be heartbreaking. Studies show that children as young as six years may associate negative stereotypes with excess weight and believe that a heavy child is simply less likable. While some overweight kids can compensate and have good adjustments skills, the majority of children with morbid obesity have reported lower self-esteem and self-worth scores than their peers. Their low self-esteem can translate into feelings of shame about their bodies and lack of self-confidence that can lead to poorer academic performance at school. Youngsters are especially prone to teasing and bullying and the frequent accusation that their obesity is wholly their own fault.

With all of this turmoil, children can often describe feelings of loneliness and be less likely than their peers to describe themselves as popular or cool. In an ironic twist, some overweight kids might seek emotional comfort in food, adding even more calories to their plates at the same time that their pediatricians and parents are urging them to eat less. Add to that the other emotional peaks and valleys of life, including the stress of moving to a new community, difficulties in school or issues in their parents lives, and some children routinely overindulge in food.

There are other obesity-related repercussions that continue well into adolescence and beyond. Heavy teenagers and adults might face discrimination based solely on their weight. Some research suggests that they are less likely to be accepted for admission to a prestigious university. They may also have a reduced chance of landing good jobs than their thinner peers. Women who are overweight may have a decreased likelihood of dating or finding a marriage partner. Public health longitudinal studies show that when heavy kids become heavy adults, they tend to earn less money and marry less often than their friends who are of average weight.

Morbid obesity is a complex disease that affects all aspects of a person’s mental and physical well-being. As we continue this series on the disease of obesity, we will start to discuss how obesity affects life expectancy and the physiology of the health conditions such as diabetes and hypertension.


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