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The hidden effects of weight loss: A deep dive into the psychological impact

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

We all know that weight loss has significant physiological benefits, including lower blood pressure, a reduced likelihood of diabetes and lower blood lipid levels…but what about its psychological benefits? One large-scale study review published in the journal Appetite showed that shedding excess weight has vast benefits, including improved self-esteem, less depressive symptoms, a better body image and health-related quality of life. The review also showed that losing weight can help people feel more vital, which makes sense if obesity or overweight are making it difficult to enjoy a wider array of activities. Below are just a few of the most powerful psychological benefits that taking steps to be within one’s ideal weight can deliver.

Photo by Marcel Strauß on Unsplash

Weight Loss and Depression

A 2021 systematic review published in the Journal of Personalized Medicine highlighted recent studies showing that weight loss due to caloric restriction or gastric bypass surgery improves depressive symptoms among obese patients with depression. Some researchers believe that depression can be a consequence of obesity when factors such as societal stigmatisation, low self-esteem and dissatisfaction with one’s appearance occur. Others point out that obesity results from decreased physical activity, excessive comfort eating and antidepressant medication. At any rate, several studies have found big associations between mood and diet.

You Are What You Eat

It is not just obesity per se that can exacerbate depression. Specific foods can also contribute to a depressed mood and obesity. Specifically, Western-style diets that are high in refined carbohydrates and low in fibre are associated with the worsening of moods. So, too, are those that are high in carbohydrates and low in fat and protein. By contrast, Mediterranean-style diets can uplift moods, owing in no small part to the anti-inflammatory effects of this type of diet. To keep inflammation at bay, avoid processed foods, those with added salts, palm oils and saturated fats, processed carbs, and excess alcohol. All these can promote inflammation and not only lead to weight gain, but also to a depressed mood.

Physiological Links Between Obesity and Depression

Research has also found that metabolic and inflammatory dysregulation are common in both obesity and depression. What’s more, both persons with obesity and those who are battling depression show a dysregulation in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and a resulting elevation in stress hormone (cortisol) levels. Research has also found that minimising accumulated adipose tissue (through weight loss) leads to improved mood by lowering the inflammatory response. Adipose tissue essentially leads to immune activation which in turn has various effects on the body. For instance, this tissue can produce specific molecules that lead to an increased inflammatory response. The latter lowers levels of serotonin and negatively influences mood.

Weight Loss and Physical Activity

People who lose weight are more likely to feel comfortable and motivated to undertake more exercise. This in itself has a big impact on their psychological health. Researchers have found that people can develop positive psychological qualities such as confidence, resilience, and self-efficacy when they take part in physical activities. Exercise can also reduce both muscle tension and stress hormone levels, thereby having an anti-anxiety effect. People living with obesity may lead more sedentary lifestyles, thereby reducing their strength, cardiovascular fitness, flexibility and balance over the years. They may feel breathless when taking a few steps or walking up a hill. Losing weight can help them gain confidence in their strength and fitness, while also empowering them to feel less stigmatised or judged when they exercise outdoors or go to the gym. Often, it is a fear of others’ reactions that stop people from pursuing an active lifestyle, even if they know it can help them achieve their weight loss goals.

Losing weight is not just about the physical benefits, though these are plentiful and varied. Weight loss helps keep a host of chronic diseases at bay, including heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. However, as people shed excess weight, they can also feel more motivated to head to the ‘Great Outdoors’ or the gym to join others in group fitness and strength classes. Lower levels of adipose tissue also have direct effects on key chemicals like serotonin, which can help keep moods at an optimal level. Studies have also shown that weight loss can help stave off depression, which is an issue that plagues people of all ages. Regardless of whether one opts for bariatric surgery or other forms of weight reduction, the benefits can include a happier life in addition to a longer one.

This article was written by a guest authors, Nina Winslow.


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