Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Distressed victims of the war on obesity

distressed woman
Young women with a body mass index above 30 will, thirty years later, suffer from serious anxiety and depression five to six times as likely as slim women will, and this is not necessarily an adverse effect of body fat but rather of its negative reputation.

The three decade prospective study on obesity and mental diseases of women has just been published in the International Journal of Obesity: More than five hundred young mothers have been interviewed face by face at age 27 on average, and again thirty years later. Height and weight have been recorded by self report in these interviews, and although some of the women may have lied about their weight, it can be assumed that the values of body mass index (BMI) obtained by this method have been sufficiently accurate for dividing them into three classes: below 25, between 25 and 30, and above 30. When compared to the lowest weight class, the women with the highest weights have been suffering from anxiety disorder six times as likely and from major depression five times as likely at age 59 on average. The study authors conclude:

"Findings extend existing evidence of the mental health consequences of obesity in a representative sample of mothers, and suggest that obesity may have long-term implications for mental distress in women at a clinical level over the adult years."
Possible causes of distress

This study cannot tell anything about the possible causes of the "mental health consequences of obesity". But it may rather be the consequences of the "war on obesity" than body fat itself. Even in conditions like diabetes and heart diseases, there is no real evidence of a negative action of body fat cells. Thus, it seems to be very unlikely that these cells change the body hormones in a way that may have a negative impact on mood. Just look at a painting by Rubens: Do his models look distressed?

A better explanation of the study results, in my opinion, is the huge social pressure on women to be slim, not only imposed by the fashion industry but also fueled by public health that labels a body mass index above 25 as "overweight" - in other words "not normal" - and above 30 as "obesity" which is in itself considered a disease.

While the public health "war on obesity" has not yet proven to have made people healthier, this study, most likely, shows us the negative side effects of such campaigns.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/40912457@N00/500141443/

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