WEIGHT MANAGEMENT ∙ 3 minutes read

Here’s how your mental health could be hindering your weight loss success

By Joseph Lee | Medically reviewed by Dr Luke Pratsides

A recent health survey conducted by the NHS found that 36% of people over the age of 16 in England are overweight. A further 28% of adults in England are categorised as obese. The research also revealed that men are more likely than women to be overweight.

England is carrying a lot of excess weight. Overweight individuals are putting a physical strain on themselves, as well as burdening national public health services. Studies also show that being obese or overweight as an adult is linked with a severe drop in life expectancy and an increased risk of mortality from diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Weight loss can be a tricky subject to approach on a personal level. Reaching out when you’re overweight or obese can unfortunately bring with it judgment, from self and others. The same type of challenges around stigma, self-identity and wider public health are also met when talking about mental health. 

On paper, weight loss and mental health might seem totally opposite. One is a physical activity and the other is mental. But go a little deeper and there is more of a crossover than first imagined. So, can mental health really impact weight loss success?

Weight management and mental health factors

It takes hard work, commitment and self-motivation to make healthier choices for you and your body. But the physical lifestyle choices we make are often controlled by what we feed into our heads. Our minds are constantly processing information about weight and body image. 

Whether it’s exposure to constant fast food advertising, the convenience of groceries delivered to your door or the relentless marketing posts promoting an idealised body aesthetic. We may not even realise these things feed into our daily health and lifestyle choices, but when we start to track what we consume physically and mentally, we can identify behaviours that may be detrimental to our wellbeing. 

If you’re overweight with a busy lifestyle, it can be difficult to stop and find the time to shed those extra pounds. For those that are severely overweight or obese, any attempt at drastically burning body fat can seem like an uphill struggle. Our lives are much more complex than the Insta fitness influencers let on. We might have other priorities that take up our time, things that are on our minds more often. Family dependents, a burnout-inducing job, injuries or even a Netflix series that seem to suck up all available free time. 

When our minds are occupied by other things, it can be difficult to prioritise a physically healthy body. On the opposite side, some people are so fixated on their body image that it becomes an unhealthy mental association to cope with stigma

What is a healthy body image?

If you ever stop to look in the mirror at your body, chances are that you’ll start to form ideas about your body image. The way we see our bodies and interpret thoughts around body image isn’t always a healthy way to look at weight management. 

Men can be prone to measure themselves against an idealised ‘gold standard’ of what it means to appear to be masculine. This pressure to conform to a preconceived idea of what a ‘fit male’ looks like can be detrimental and lead to low self-esteem, one of the key drivers for the development of depression. This is not a healthy body image.

One study shows the mental impact on men who viewed ‘ideal physical images’ of other men on social media. Lower levels of body satisfaction and self-esteem were found in men who considered themselves to not reflect images of a physical ideal, with a significant impact on the perceptions of their own physique and physical attractiveness.

Does mental health impact the ability to exercise?

Whether it’s mental illness causing weight gain or the relationship between exercise and depression, poor mental health can get in the way of a person’s ability to think clearly about maintaining a healthy weight. Anxiety and depression can create overwhelming problems that outweigh keeping track of weight gain or weight loss. 

People who suffer from depression are also more likely to suffer from sleep issues. One study found that insomnia, a condition that impacts a person’s ability to sleep, occurs in over half of adults aged 21-30 who suffer from depression. If you’re feeling groggy and exhausted in the daytime, finding the energy to exercise could feel like an almost impossible task. 

Does mental illness cause weight loss?

Poor mental health has the ability to cause the deterioration of the things a person holds dear when they are in a good state of mental health. Relationships can break down, ties with family can become distant. The things someone once valued can become worthless. If one of those values is maintaining a healthy weight, that too can become meaningless to someone suffering from depression. 

A person suffering from a serious mental illness may no longer care about their physical health or their weight, due to feelings of worthlessness. So, can mental health problems cause weight loss?

Unintentional weight loss can be a side effect of mental health issues such as eating disorders, depression and anxiety. But because the individual experiences of mental health conditions such as depression are complex and are different for each person experiencing it, so too is the impact on weight control.

Can a blood test tell me why I can’t lose weight?

If your mental health is getting in the way of healthy weight loss, you may be looking for a clear answer from a source you can trust. An at-home blood test could be the way to find out whether you have any underlying physical health issues or biochemical factors that explain why weight loss is proving difficult. Measuring biomarkers such as cholesterol and thyroid are key to help with weight management.

The bottom line 

If you’re suffering from mental health issues, your physical health can also be impacted. The way you see your body can add to the problem of weight loss but it doesn’t have to be that way. Just remember that acknowledging mental and physical health challenges is the first step to getting better. Support for mental health issues is always available through your GP, the charity sector or 24-hour support through NHS 111.