Excess Body Fat Linked To Increased Depression Risk

In Healthcare, Industry News, Mental Health by Paul Howell

Obesity is complex and having excess body fat is something that is not just a cosmetic concern. The bottom line is obesity is a medical problem and it increases a person’s risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, certain cancers and other health problems.

But now new research suggests that carrying excess body fat also increases a person’s risk of depression.

According to the study carried out by researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark, carrying just 10kg of excess body fat can increase a person’s risk of depression by 17%.

The study, the findings of which appear in Translational Psychiatry, sought to investigate why the link between obesity and depression exists. But rather than relying on Body Mass Index (BMI) data (like most other similar studies), the team focused on body composition and fat distribution instead.

By doing so, the researchers were able to see if a relationship existed between the location of the body fat and a person’s risk of depression.

While BMI is a measure widely used for a number of applications, it is actually quite an inaccurate way of determining obesity. For example, many elite athletes who have large muscles and hardly any body fat often have BMIs above 25 – which would see them labelled ‘obese’.

More psychological than physiological

Having confirmed that the location of the fat had no bearing on the risk of depression, the study’s last author, Dr. Søren Dinesen Østergaard, said: “This suggests that it is the psychological consequences of being overweight or obese which lead to the increased risk of depression, and not the direct biological effect of the fat.”

He went on to say that if the opposite was true, the researchers would have seen that fat located centrally on the body – which is most damaging in biological terms – would have increased the risk the most. But it didn’t.

Furthermore, no link was found between carrying excess non-fat mass (like muscle) and a greater risk of depression, suggesting that fat is a much greater risk factor.

The psychological consequences of obesity, like the negative body image and associated low self-esteem, are thought to be the driving forces behind the increased risk of depression.

Obesity and mental health

We recently wrote about how more employees than ever are seeking mental health support. And with 29% of UK adults now classed as obese [source: NHS], it raises questions about the impact this may be having on mental health.

So while employers can offer programmes and support services to help boost their employees’ mental health, an effective additional measure could be to promote healthier eating and more physical exercise too – especially as we now know that excess body fat increases a person’s risk of depression.

It has been recognised for quite some time that in the majority of cases, exercise and a healthy diet is vital in helping control and avoiding obesity. But now, the evidence confirms that depression can also be triggered by our lifestyle choices. 

I joined Premier Choice Group as an SME/Corporate Consultant in 2017 and look after the Healthcare & Protection needs of a nationwide portfolio. I began my career in Healthcare and Protection in 1985 with BUPA, before moving on to  Royal & Sun Alliance. In 2002, I became an Intermediary and worked with Private Clients, SME’s and Corporate clients on a local, national and international basis.