The Psychological Factors Behind Obesity

Addressing obesity implies thinking about aspects that go beyond changes in diet or exercise. It requires us to consider the psychological factors that also influence or sustain obesity.
The Psychological Factors Behind Obesity
Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales

Written and verified by the psychologist Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales.

Last update: 05 November, 2022

Extreme thinness or obesity are two situations that receive inadequate attention. What we see on the outside are sticking-out ribs or a sticking-out belly, but few people take the time to understand and get to know a little more about what’s going on in the background. In this article, we’re going to have a look at the psychological factors behind obesity.

People say a lot about these bodies and everything is unpleasant. People pronounce moral judgments in an almost accusatory tone. Thousands of haters comment on social networks about how obese people look.

Are there psychological factors behind obesity?

When we think of obesity, many of the theories revolve around unsuitable lifestyle habits, such as overeating, a diet saturated with fat, and a lack of exercise. Now, if a person with obesity, almost magically, were to change those habits, would that be enough?

If we understand that health is much more than just going for a run and that it has to do with what we think and feel, then the answer changes. It is not enough. That’s when the psychological factors behind obesity start to become relevant.

It’s worth noting that many factors are involved in obesity. It’s clear that it isn’t all about something versus something else, physical versus psychological, genetics versus environment. It’s all of these things and more. Only in this way will we be able to propose a sensible, holistic, and useful approach to the patient.

An obese person.
Overeating to make up for emotional deficiencies isn’t an uncommon mechanism in obese people.

What are these factors?

Now, let’s take a look at some of the psychological factors related to obesity:

  • Low self-esteem, being too self-critical.
  • Situations of stress or trauma.
  • Anxiety, depression.
  • Episodes of violence experienced in the past.
  • Emotional eating. The person uses food as a way to escape from their problems or cope with situations. It functions as a refuge and an escape route to the emotions that are felt.
  • Difficulty in impulse control. In fact, many patients with obesity report that they can’t stop eating.

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How can we deal with obesity using psychology?

There are different strategies to deal with obesity. Some of them are the following.

Psychoeducation

Here the work should involve different areas. It isn’t only about developing resources for impulse control, but also to address self-esteem and self-concept.

On the other hand, there’ll also be informative and nutritional indications on how to read product labels, how to choose food, and prepare balanced dishes. The aim is to provide tools so that, little by little, they can make better decisions. It’s important for different professionals to participate in order to achieve a comprehensive and holistic approach.

Working on motivation

Self-care and looking for interests are encouraged. In this way, the objective is that people will realise there are more things to talk about than food, and that they’ll start to develop their own interests and projects.

Addressing beliefs about obesity

Each person has his or her own ideas regarding what they’re living through. Only by knowing the patient’s interpretation can we help them to create healthy and sustainable habits over time.

Providing tools to cope with stress

One such example is through relaxation instead food. Emotional management is a key part of the treatment.

Relaxation for obesity.
Exercise plans, breathing and relaxing practices are useful to accompany changes in habits.

Involving the family

Nutrition is much more than just the right caloric and protein balance. There are also social and cultural aspects around it.

Therefore, experts will need to inquire about family beliefs and customs regarding food. In this way, they will be able to recommend support methods to the person.

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Respecting bodies and taking care of health

Facing obesity doesn’t mean that we accept diversity in our bodies. Just as there are shorter and taller people, there are also thinner and more robust people.

What we do have to take into account is that being overweight has consequences on general health. Accepting obesity means not stigmatizing diverse bodies, not mocking those who don’t have an “ideal” body”, and not promoting models of extreme thinness.

However, accepting obesity also means adopting a proactive role in terms of self-care, seeking a balance between our physical build and genetic inheritance, without trying to turn your body into something it isn’t. Of course, this doesn’t mean falling into the extreme of actually encouraging bad eating habits.

It’s important to keep in mind that obesity has comorbidity with other diseases or complex situations. For example, it could be associated with depression or trauma.

In this sense, it’s necessary to vindicate body diversity, but also to be responsible in our approach to obesity. Not only because of the risks involved, but also because it often has a direct link with other illnesses and conditions.

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