The easy availability of food has resulted in an increase in obesity in the world population among adults and children for several years. Also, the development of civilization and the industrialization of the world has caused people’s lifestyles to change. Less physical activity, longer working hours, eating high-calorie meals, and eating in a hurry – are just a few of the main reasons for the risk of weight gain. In recent years, the global obesity rate has risen to record levels and the number of obese people has tripled since 1975. It is estimated that 16% of the world’s population is now clinically obese. The World Health Organisation states that by 2030, there will be as many as 600 million people worldwide suffering from obesity. While it would seem that only highly developed countries are affected, obesity has also tripled in North African countries over the past 20 years.

The psychological background of obesity

Until now, mainly biological and environmental factors have been considered as causes of obesity. However, it has recently been reported that obesity may also have psychological determinants. 

The Homeostatic Theory of Obesity distinguishes three groups of factors concerning the occurrence and maintenance of obesity, i.e.: social, physical, and psychological. The last group, which includes: quality of life, body dissatisfaction, negative emotions, food restriction, or motivation, relates to various aspects of human functioning. An individual’s experienced emotional state, perceptions of his or her current life situation, and eating habits determine the emergence and persistence of obesity.

In his research, Marks showed that people struggling with overweight and obesity experience negative emotions, low self-esteem, stigma, and alienation associated with excessive body weight. This results in a decrease in motivation, as well as an increase in food intake and low attention to both physical and mental health.

Emotions such as fear, sadness, anger, or joy affect our eating patterns. Therefore, the hunger experienced is often emotional, not physiological. To improve our mood, we usually reach for sweets and high-calorie products. These become the cure for all problems. Seeking solace in food has its origins in early childhood when mother’s milk or a bottle of food not only satisfied hunger, but also reduced feelings of anxiety, and loneliness and gave a sense of security. People with obesity find it difficult to adequately assess hunger-satiety levels and to distinguish between emotional and physiological hunger. 

Psychological background and its impact on weight gain.

Disorders of the self-regulatory mechanism are mainly related to the failure to maintain control over the amount of food consumed in certain situations. People with a problem in this aspect at times when food is widely available, for example at family celebrations or social gatherings, are unable to control the amount of food consumed. They consume much more just because there is a lot of food and it is at their fingertips. Situations conducive to such behavior are also moments in which our self-awareness becomes dormant. These can include watching a film, engaging in reading a book, or having an engaging conversation with friends. This is when we reach for food automatically. We are not aware of what we are eating or how much we are eating. People with self-regulation problems often ignore or fail to identify the feeling of satiety and fullness in the stomach, which should be a factor inhibiting the need to eat.

Another factor that contributes to excessive eating is the individual’s beliefs and expectations of the world and themselves. If a person is characterized by a high sense of passivity and helplessness, has high expectations of him/herself and the need to be perfect, and is characterized by low self-esteem, then it is highly likely that a depressed mood and pessimism will dominate his/her life. Such states trigger the need to comfort oneself. By its accessibility, food becomes an easy and effective (at least for a while) form of mood enhancement and distraction from aggravating thoughts.

It appears that the presence of certain personality traits can also influence the onset of overweight and obesity. Particularly vulnerable are people with a high level of neuroticism, i.e. those who tend to experience negative emotions, and people with a high level of introversion, who remain aloof, quiet, and closed in. In their cases, eating becomes an effective way to cope with feelings of loneliness and mood drops.

One of the most problematic factors responsible for abnormal eating behavior, and consequently overeating, is the inability to cope with stress and difficult emotions. It appears that this problem is affecting an increasing number of people. When stress or difficult emotions arise, people reach for food to distract themselves. Since food is nowadays accessed without any effort, for many ’stress eating‘ has become a kind of easy and undemanding way of dealing with difficult emotions. This is because eating food stimulates our brain’s reward system and triggers feelings of pleasure. One study found that when overeating, the human body activates the same parts of the brain as drug addicts do when they become intoxicated. 

Stress and weight

As mentioned above, one important factor affecting obesity is the stress that often accompanies us in our daily lives. Stress can have a significant impact on the body. Studies have shown that it is the stress hormone, cortisol, that can contribute to obesity as it affects eating behavior. 

There is a whole range of negative feelings that stress can cause us. During stress, it can be misinterpreted and emotions can be discharged through increased food intake. Frequent repetition of this pattern can lead to obesity. Numerous scientific studies show that obese people are more sensitive and often react more strongly emotionally to stressful situations than people of normal weight. People with obesity perceive stressful situations differently, usually describing them as more taxing than people of normal weight. 

Another reason for excessive stress eating is a lack of coping skills, more precisely a lack of ability to discharge emotions. Everyone has their style of coping with crises, but not always a style focused on constructive action and problem-solving. When we interpret emotions as hunger, there is an increase in food intake. With the correct interpretation of stress as an emotion, there should be a discharge of stress by means other than food intake. 

Also, the decision for an obese person to undertake a weight-loss treatment should be taken with caution, as it can be a source of great psychological strain. Overweight and obese people attempting to reduce weight are vulnerable to stress during such a treatment. The reasons for this are varied, they may, for example, be due to perceptions about their body and lack of results in weight reduction during the treatment. How we see and evaluate our own body is made up of many elements, primarily the emotional connection to the body, attitudes towards it as a whole and to its parts, and individual thoughts about the body.

In everyday life, stress accompanies us all the time, so many situations can negate the effects of a weight-loss treatment. We associate food with childhood, pleasure, and reward, so often in stressful situations, obese people compensate for the ‚losses‘ experienced by stress and relieve negative emotions. Eating „forbidden snacks“ thus becomes a „comforter“, acting as an addiction, with more impact than the principles of rational nutrition.

When one problem turns into another

While it is no secret that there is a link between emotional problems or mental health conditions and obesity, it is not always clear which way the relationship works. The correlation between excess body weight and psychiatric disorders is interesting in that sometimes the primary problem is obesity and sometimes it is psychiatric problems. People who weigh an excessive amount of weight face different opinions from other people – many times, unfortunately, they are harassed because of their appearance. Sometimes they are also the victims of unfunny jokes. Some people – for various reasons – attempt to lose weight but fail. Both criticism from other people and unsuccessful attempts to combat obesity can lead to psychological problems. Among other things, patients may develop depression and anxiety. Sometimes, the constant ridicule of an obese person is a reason for the onset of an eating disorder – the patient may want to change their appearance so much that they end up losing themselves in their dietary restrictions and eventually develop anorexia. However, it is also possible that the patient’s primary problem is not excessive body weight, but some psychological disorder. Depression, for example, may be mentioned here, in the course of which patients may neglect to maintain a healthy, varied diet or underestimate the need to undertake regular physical activity.

Studies have shown that people with mental illnesses, such as anxiety disorders, depression, and bipolar disorder, are more likely to be obese than those without mental health problems. In 2017, researchers in India examined the co-occurrence rate of obesity and mental disorders. They found that 70% of obese patients had depression (major depressive disorder) and 27% had anxiety or panic disorders. The researchers also found people with a high BMI were more likely to have personality and eating disorders. It is important to note that not all mental illnesses are associated with weight gain and everyone may experience different symptoms e.g. depression can lead to overeating and thus being overweight, but it can also reduce appetite and result in weight loss.

Weight gain and the Coronavirus pandemic

Even before the pandemic, obesity was described as the ‚epidemic of the 21st century‘. A period of quarantine or isolation affects the experience of severe stress, which can increase the risk of obesity, among other things. One consequence of this condition may be a change in lifestyle and eating habits. Food is a way of relieving bad emotions and improving well-being, and in stressful situations, highly processed and high-energy products, with a long shelf life, high in sugar, and saturated fats, but low in value and nutrient density, are the most common choices. A period of social isolation has forced a change from work and study to remote, which has also contributed to more frequent snacking and cessation of activity. Research indicates that limiting interpersonal contact affects the mental health of people who have never had a similar disorder before. Problems related to experiencing anxiety, restlessness, irritability, loneliness, lowered mood, or frustration are most commonly observed. They are more likely to experience depression.

Weight problems in the workplace

Rebecca Pearl’s research shows that obese people are perceived in the workplace as lazy, less intelligent, sloppy, and lacking in willpower. This is perceived by employers to translate into their work – their ability to manage and discipline themselves, their motivation, and their self-control. It doesn’t stop there. There is also a greater risk that such a person will be fired, or not hired at all. Researchers Puhl and Heuer also add to the symptoms of obesity stigma in the labor market lower average wages, more frequent dismissals, negative comments, and jokes about weight made by colleagues and superiors. Such individuals are also less likely to be promoted. 

Even some health professionals are not free from the stereotyping and stigmatization of obesity. A study by Mary Huizinga and colleagues found that doctors were less committed to helping obese patients than those of average weight. Without an in-depth diagnosis and sometimes even without a medical history, they stated that the universal advice for all medical problems of patients is to ‚lose weight‘, which in itself is wrong, after all, according to the Polish Dietetic Association’s Guidelines for the Treatment of Obesity, the aim of obesity treatment is not weight loss, but a lifestyle change. And the success of the therapy is considered to be not only the reduction of the initial body weight but also – and this is very difficult for many patients – the maintenance of this reduction over time.

Mental well-being is the first step toward weight loss

Modern times are particularly conducive to emotional obesity, as well as other disorders (such as anxiety and depression). We try to be as active as possible, we want to be successful at every level, which completely exhausts our resources. All this is accompanied by greater irritability and increasing conflicts within the family, increased anxiety, greater insecurity, and a progressive loss of social bonds. We are also ‚overstimulated‘. This can be explained in that we have an overload of reward centers in our brains. The result is uncontrollable hunger and insatiable desire – on various levels, from food to possessions. 

As you can see above, psychological factors can influence what we eat, how we eat, and when we eat. At some points in our lives, these factors can determine our eating styles to such an extent that we lose control, and this can contribute to our becoming overweight or obese. In such cases, it is very important to reach out for help.

LUMEUS can help you. Over 40 years ago, founder Dagmar Herzog developed the first emotional training program, Mental Weight Loss Training, to help herself get away from a long-standing eating disorder. Dagmar recognized that in every addiction, whether alcohol, cigarettes, or food, the addictive substance is always experienced with positive emotions because it is linked in the brain with ideas of love, security, comfort, and reward. This is where the Herzog Method comes in. Through targeted training with emotions, the subconscious is reprogrammed. In this way, new behaviors are established, and old, disturbing, or even harmful patterns are discarded. Learn with the LUMEUS Weight Loss program how unhealthy eating habits are connected to emotions and change them sustainably into healthy habits. 

An article by

Alexandra Knebel

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