NEWS Mental Health News Substance Use, Mental Health Problems on the Rise for Those With Obesity By Elizabeth Millard Elizabeth Millard LinkedIn Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition. Learn about our editorial process Updated on March 05, 2021 Fact checked Verywell Mind content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication. Learn more. by Rich Scherr Fact checked by Rich Scherr LinkedIn Twitter Rich Scherr is a seasoned journalist who has covered technology, finance, sports, and lifestyle. Learn about our editorial process Share Tweet Email Print Key Takeaways People with obesity may be at higher risk for COVID-related mental health and substance use issues.Researchers suggest this may be because of high levels of stress and maladaptive coping strategies.Excess weight can put people at risk for other major health problems, including higher complication rates with COVID. Although mental health concerns and higher substance use has been noted throughout the general population due to COVID-19, people with obesity, in particular, may be at higher risk, according to a study in Clinical Obesity. Researchers looked at online survey responses from 589 participants from June 1 to September 30, 2020, covering the use of substances like drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. In addition to mental health, participants also were asked about other behaviors like shopping for food, exercising, eating healthy meals, and getting quality sleep. About 17% had tested positive for COVID in that timeframe. They found that among those with obesity, there was substantial drug use reported, particularly opioids. Participants also had more difficulty falling asleep, found healthy eating more challenging, and stockpiled more food. Over 40% reported at least one mental health condition, including anxiety or depression. The Obesity and Mental Health Connection Even before COVID, obesity was associated with an increased risk of mental health issues, and a study in Archives of General Psychiatry found that obesity increased the odds of mood anxiety disorders by 25%. But that research also found a 25% decrease in the risk of substance use disorders. Sarah Messiah, PhD There is a relationship between stress and obesity, through cognitive and physiological mechanisms. — Sarah Messiah, PhD However, keep in mind that those findings came well before the pandemic, according to the study’s lead author, Sarah Messiah, PhD, professor of epidemiology, genetics, and environmental sciences at the University of Texas. “There is a relationship between stress and obesity, through cognitive and physiological mechanisms,” she says. “During the pandemic, our anecdotal clinical experiences with patients suggested that substance misuse may be occurring more frequently in this group than was previously thought.” After looking at data from the surveys, their suspicions were confirmed, she adds. COVID-19 has significantly impacted people with obesity by negatively influencing mental health and prompting more substance use as a way to cope with stress and trauma. “The concerns that this raises is that because stress levels are high, particularly in people with obesity, that could lead to more maladaptive coping behaviors like increased stress eating and food stockpiling,” says Messiah. “That can make achieving weight-loss goals more difficult and increase the likelihood of even more substance use.” Body Shaming, Harmful Diet Culture on the Rise During COVID-19 More Weight, More Risks In addition to mental health issues like anxiety and depression, as well as substance use, those with obesity who gain weight as a result of stress could be at risk for other issues as well. Most notably, obesity increases the chances of developing metabolic syndrome, which includes five factors: A large waistlineElevated blood sugar levelsHigh blood pressureHigh triglyceride levelsLow levels of HDL cholesterol A research letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that the rate of metabolic syndrome is rising in all age groups, with as many as half of adults over 60 diagnosed with the condition. The rate is surging upward in younger people the fastest, however. Researchers noted there's been a 5% increase over the past five years among those aged 20 to 39, which represents a serious public health problem. Also, obesity may change a person's immune response to COVID-19, making it more difficult to fight off the virus and increasing the risk of complications, according to a recent commentary published in Endocrinology. How Stress Can Cause Weight Gain Next Steps to Consider For those who have obesity or are struggling with excess weight, making even small changes can lead to a potentially important impact, suggests Sharon McDowell-Larsen, PhD, exercise physiologist and coach at the Center for Creative Leadership. Sharon McDowell-Larsen, PhD The main thing to keep in mind is to be gentle with yourself, and know that stress right now is very normal. — Sharon McDowell-Larsen, PhD For example, taking time to move more, such as doing short walks, could help with anxiety and depression, particularly if done outside in fresh air. Talking with a primary care physician and mental health counselor can also be important, especially if you’re struggling with substance use issues. All the usual healthy habits should be considered as well, such as: Eating plenty of fruits and vegetablesMaintaining social connections, even if it’s through online toolsGetting regular health check-upsPracticing some form of mindfulness or gratitudeGetting physical activity throughout the day “The main thing to keep in mind is to be gentle with yourself, and know that stress right now is very normal,” says McDowell-Larsen. “You don’t have to overhaul everything all at once, because that can feel like one more stressor. Instead, take more breaks, talk to your doctor, and make a plan for your health.” What This Means For You If you're struggling with obesity, you may be at higher risk right now for substance use disorders and mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. Consider talking to your primary care doctor or a mental health professional who can help. Short- and Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Consumption The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page. 4 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. Almandoz JP, Xie L, Schellinger JN, et al. Substance use, mental health and weight‐related behaviours during the COVID‐19 pandemic in people with obesity. Clin Obes. 2021;11(2). doi:10.1111/cob.12440 Simon GE, Von Korff M, Saunders K, et al. Association between obesity and psychiatric disorders in the US adult population. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2006;63(7):824‐830. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.63.7.824 Hirode G, Wong RJ. Trends in the prevalence of metabolic syndrome in the United States, 2011-2016. JAMA. 2020;323(24):2526–2528. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.4501 Huizinga GP, Singer BH, Singer K. The collision of meta-inflammation and SARS-CoV-2 pandemic infection. Endocrinology. 2020;161(11):bqaa154. doi:10.1210/endocr/bqaa154 By Elizabeth Millard Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist Online Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.