Weight Gain—Can it Be Linked to Mental Illness?

Having a mental illness such as bipolar disorder does not necessarily make you gain weight. Studies have shown, however, that over three-quarters of those with a severe mental disability happen to be overweight or obese.

Why the Weight Gain?

Mental illness, in and of itself, most likely does not create weight gain. Research hasn’t determined if, for example, bipolar disorder directly affects the body, making it gain weight. Metabolism is affected, which can certainly instigate weight fluctuation. But, a disorder such as binge eating would more likely trigger behavior that could potentially cause obesity.

There are several reasons that may be contributory. The most obvious are poor eating habits and inactivity. Whether mental illness is a factor or not, any human being who eats poorly (processed, fried, or fast foods) can expect to gain weight. This is especially true if a person is not moving around or exercising.

Some medicines prescribed for mental disorders cause increased appetite. Others create metabolic changes that simply augment weight, regardless of higher caloric intake. For example, Lithium, a mood stabilizer, is known to be responsible for adding pounds. Also, many antipsychotic drugs cause weight gain.

The Heavy Facts

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), over 80 percent of people with serious mental illnesses are overweight or obese. One study out of Germany observed over 2,000 women between the ages of 18 and 25. It found that obese women had the highest rate of mental disorders.

One major reason patients with mental illness have a higher mortality rate is due to increased risk of disease. Being overweight or obese may lead to acquiring high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that within the next four years, obesity will be the single biggest killer on the planet.

There are several challenges in the attempt to aid those with mental illness to maintain or lose weight. Some may have memory impairment—learning new behaviors may be too difficult. Some may not have access to a gym or may be too afraid to workout in a public space.

How to Help

If you, or someone you know, is a caretaker of a person with mental illness, perhaps begin by observing eating and activity habits. Help create a nutrition and simple exercise plan. It will be stressful to make changes, so begin with easy modifications. Perhaps fruit with eggs in the morning instead of adding bacon or pancakes.

A nice walk outdoors is a great way to start getting active. Also, see about encouraging local psychiatric rehabilitation outpatient programs to incorporate physical fitness instructor and nutritionists. For more articles on mental health and wellbeing, check out DrDaveCampbell.com