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People With Higher BMI May Be at Higher Risk for Depression

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study found that a higher Body Mass Index (BMI) was associated with higher odds of depression.
  • Higher BMI was associated with lower levels of well-being.
  • Higher BMI was not associated with higher levels of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

Body mass index or BMI is a measure of body fat based on a calculation of weight and height. refers to a calculation that is based on weight and height. While there is growing awareness around issues with the BMI system, it continues to be used as a measurement of health—especially as it pertains to individuals who are obese.

Recently, a study published in Human Molecular Genetics found that higher BMI was linked to higher rates of depression and lower reported levels of well-being.

Especially given how the stress of the pandemic impacted minds and bodies, it is crucial to understand the factors that may impact depression.

Understanding the Research

For this study, data were analyzed from 145,668 individuals in the UK, to ascertain connections between BMI and mental health outcomes.

While higher BMI was found to be associated with higher odds of depression and lower rates of well-being, this was not the case for rates of generalized anxiety disorder.

Researchers assessed two sets of genetic variants, whereby one set of genes made people gain weight, despite being metabolically healthier, while the other set of genes contributed to weight gain and was metabolically unhealthy, but did not find significant differences between them. These findings suggest that both physical and social considerations may impact these higher rates of depression and lower rates of well-being.

Despite the large sample size, it is a limitation that the participants were only of European ancestry, so these findings are not generalizable.

Fatphobia Can Increase Depression Risks

Certified bariatric specialist, and neuroscientist, Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C, says, “There is a correlation between higher BMI and ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) from a 1985 Kaiser Permanente and CDC study.”

Renetta Weaver, LCSWC

Fatphobia is something that can definitely increase the risk for depression because there are a lot of stigma and stereotypes about people with a certain BMI being lazy, unmotivated, and other negative adjectives.

— Renetta Weaver, LCSWC

By this, Weaver explains that if someone has a higher BMI and they are an emotional eater due to being in survival mode then depression is probably on board and food may be producing hormonal changes with respect to dopamine and serotonin, which can make a person with high cortisol levels (stress hormone) to feel better. “A person who is experiencing depression may use food to numb out and escape,” she says.

Weaver says, “Fatphobia is something that can definitely increase the risk for depression because there are a lot of stigma and stereotypes about people with a certain BMI being lazy, unmotivated, and other negative adjectives.” In addition to her professional training, Weaver personally understands the correlation between emotional and physical weight as a person with a higher BMI who has undergone bariatric surgery.

Given her experience, Weaver says, “I wish the public knew more about how BMI is not a true measure of one’s weight because of the difference in muscle and weight, biology, culture, etc. There’s also the biological and evolutionary factors of weight, including lifestyle and environment.”

BMI Is Only One Factor

Jacqueline Rech, MS, LPC, says, “I feel like this is a case where correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. They were only looking at genetics with a small mention of a mental health questionnaire. If you have your magnifying glass that close to the ground, all you will see is what you’re trying to find, without looking up to the whole rest of the world at other possible causes for what you see under your magnifying glass.”

Jacqueline Rech, MS, LPC

And that’s not even factoring in things like history of trauma, C-PTSD, family genetics, or simply the fact that maybe a person never learned about proper nutrition and all the processed foods they are consuming are filled with chemicals that interrupt healthy brain development.

— Jacqueline Rech, MS, LPC

In this way, Rech questions if depression can be said to cause the higher BMI, as she believes that one could easily argue both sides. “And that’s not even factoring in things like history of trauma, C-PTSD, family genetics, or simply the fact that maybe a person never learned about proper nutrition and all the processed foods they are consuming are filled with chemicals that interrupt healthy brain development,” she says.

Especially given the stress that has come with living during a pandemic, which can include losing a job, Rech highlights how other factors need to be considered when thinking critically about weight and depression. She explains that it is possible to explore how to make real changes that would decrease depressive symptoms. “There’s counseling and medication management, exercise, food changes, support groups, etc.,” she says.

What This Means For You

As the research demonstrates, there is a correlation between higher BMI and higher odds of depression and lower levels of well-being. It is important to think critically about both the physical and social factors that may impact mental health. Weight stigma can often be a substantial barrier to both weight loss and addressing depression.

Given how these harmful narratives can impact mental health, social factors deserve further consideration. Especially if you are not subjected to negative assumptions based on your weight, you have a responsibility to challenge the problematic status quo. Individuals of all shapes and sizes deserve to feel comfortable in their bodies.

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  1. Casanova F, O’Loughlin J, Martin S et al. Higher adiposity and mental health: causal inference using Mendelian randomizationHum Mol Genet. Published online July 16, 2021. doi:10.1093/hmg/ddab204

  2. Felitti V, Anda R, Nordenberg D, et al. Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adultsAm J Prev Med. 1998;14(4):245-258. doi:10.1016/s0749-3797(98)00017-8