Obesity – How Can A Psychologist Help?

February 28, 2018

Obesity is a health problem that involves different physical, genetic, psychological, and environmental factors. Aside from being an aesthetic problem, the World Health Organization states that it has dangerous consequences for health. Some of the most common are: cardiovascular problems, movement disorders, and some types of cancer (liver, gallbladder, kidney, and colon cancer.) 

In recent years, psychology has become especially relevant in the treatment of obesity. Psychologists work with people who are overweight or obese to learn a series of specific tools. These tools help them lose weight or keep the weight off after surgical intervention.

In this article, we will look at different factors that experts associate with obesity and being overweight. We will focus especially on factors of a psychological nature. We will also highlight the importance and characteristics of psychological therapy in these cases.

What factors are at play in obesity and being overweight?

Obesity is a multi-factorial disease. Different causes or variables contribute to its survival and origins. Next, we will quickly review the primary variables and factors that experts associate with obesity and being overweight.

Genetic and physical factors

The debate about the genetic influence on obesity is quite controversial. What we do know is that the number of cases of obesity due to genetic reasons is very low. It’s true that there are genetic syndromes that include obesity or being overweight as part of their clinical profile. However, approximately 90% of patients with obesity do not have any of these syndromes. 

Another common belief is that thyroid disorders and other hormonal problems cause obesity. Most people who start to gain weight try to find endocrine or metabolic reasons to explain their weight gain. Nevertheless, they usually fail.

measuring obesity

So, while researchers have identified certain genes and physical causes related to obesity, these genes are responsible in a very small number of cases. Many people attribute obesity to their genetic makeup because their parents and family members also tend to be obese. But, this is largely due to the fact that family members share similar environments. They have common learned eating habits and attitudes towards food and the body. These factors contribute to obesity “running in the family,” not genetics.

“A healthy body is a guest chamber for the soul: a sick body is a prison.”

-Sr. Francis Bacon-

Psychological variables associated with obesity and being overweight

Emotions are the psychological elements that experts associate most with obesity and being overweight. A person’s emotional state relates directly to his appetite, his behavior at mealtimes, and also with food choice preferences.

Emotions directly influence the appetite. How they affect it varies from person to person. An emotion like sadness or happiness can either increase or decrease your appetite. The effect is individual. There are people who eat more when they are anxious, and others who eat less. These are direct effects of emotional activation and its physical manifestations.

In an indirect way, emotions are linked with a predisposition to eat certain types of foods. For example, work stress predisposes you to eat less food. The bad part is that the small amount you eat is processed and high in calories. When you are feeling positive and relaxed, you eat a larger quantity of food more slowly.

There are also many people who struggle with obesity and being overweight who use food to regulate their emotions. In these cases, they eat when they feel frustrated, bored, or anxious. Food makes them feel better and offers temporary relief. This cycle conditions people to rely on food to make them feel better. However, in many cases, they later feel guilt and remorse.

In recent years, the idea of “food addiction” has become popular. The scientific and psychological community don’t quite have a unified opinion on the subject. It is somewhat controversial. That’s because different studies reach different conclusions. Some support the idea that food addiction does exist, and others negate it. 

It is interesting to note that food and the act of eating activate reward pathways in the brain. These are the same pathways activated by psychoactive substances like alcohol, other drugs, and gambling. With that in mind, you could say that food addiction exists because certain foods are very powerful primary positive reinforcers.

One of the most important psychological variables is “personal habits.” Psychologists call these “lifestyle behaviors.” All behavior related to daily routine, diet, and eating habits are variables that predispose or condition people to obesity and being overweight. Also, these habits are the main reason that we gain weight after surgical intervention or a successful diet.

There are several habits that cause us to be overweight and obese. The most common are lack of physical exercise and unconscious eating (when your mind is elsewhere when you eat.) Another habit is choosing foods based on the moment and the mood you are in. Eating while doing other things, and going hours without eating also contribute. For all of these reasons, it is critical to educate our children from a young age about healthy eating habits. These habits will protect them from obesity.

woman deciding what to eat

Environmental factors that relate to obesity and overweight

Environmental factors are some of the most important. That is because the environmental influence is a key part of being overweight and obese. To start with, the environment you are in greatly influences the amount of food you eat. For example, when you eat with other people, you tend to eat more.

The type of job that you do and your schedule also influence how much you eat. People who work the night shift are more likely to have an eating disorder or weight problem (anorexia, bulimia, or obesity.) Changes in your work schedule and working at night can cause sleep disorders and changes in your circadian rhythm, also known as your internal clock. That makes it hard to sleep and puts you in a negative mood. In this situation, you might turn to your diet as a way of regulating your emotional state. This could be by overeating, or not eating enough.

What does psychological therapy for being overweight and obese look like?

Psychological therapy is an essential part of treating people with obesity or those who are overweight. It helps make diets and surgical intervention successful and effective. Therapy also helps patients maintain their changes over the long-term. The psychologist will evaluate the patient’s eating habits, context, and factors that influence his habits. Then, they will suggest a particular psychological intervention.

Psychological treatment for obesity and being overweight always depends on the specific needs of the patient. In general, the psychologist will address all habits related to food. First, they must closely evaluate all of the psychological factors related to food and diet. The results of the psychological evaluation are what determine what the patient will do in therapy.

How can a psychologist help you if you are obese or overweight?

A psychologist is a health professional specializing in behavior, emotion, and thoughts. That’s why they are the best-prepared person to help you change unhealthy habits. They can also help you manage your emotions in a positive way that benefits your self-esteem.

Any kind of intervention for obesity isn’t complete without psychological therapy. If you just attack the weight problem, the patient might lose some pounds, which can be very encouraging. It gives the patient strength and improves self-esteem. However, this doesn’t address the root of the problem. Treatment also has to consider the emotional role of food in the patient’s life and their unhealthy habits.

“Health and happiness give rise to each other.”

-Joseph Addison-

obese patient and psychologist

You must change your habits and learn to deal with stress and emotions. If you don’t, unhealthy habits will come back. Your relationship with food hasn’t changed, you’ve just lost weight. When you just lose weight but not changed your lifestyle or your relationship with food, you’ll probably gain the weight again quickly.

That’s why it is essential to understand obesity as a health problem where psychological factors play an important role. If we think of obesity as more than just a weight problem, we can improve the quality of life for people who struggle with it. At the same time, we have to motivate people with obesity to seek psychological therapy. The more we normalize it, the less stigmatized it will be.