The Psychological Impact of Weight Concerns Differs Between the Sexes
Feb. 1, 2000 (New York) -- Obesity can increase the risk of depression in
women but can reduce the risk of depression in men, according to a new study.
In fact, underweight men were more likely to be depressed and suicidal than
other men, according to a report in the February issue of the American
Journal of Public Health.
"We don't know the cause and effect. ... For men, to be underweight and
on the scrawny side may not be as desirable in society. Perhaps what we're
seeing here is the stigma of being underweight for men in our culture,"
says co-researcher Myles S. Faith, PhD, of the Obesity Research Center at St.
Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center and Columbia University in New York.
"In the study, being underweight was not due to a chronic illness. The
medical complications of obesity have been well studied and are well known. The
results indicate ... that one must consider the psychological costs of obesity
as much as weight itself. If [you're] feeling depressed or stigmatized, you
might need clinical attention," Faith tells WebMD.
The data was obtained as part of a large national survey that included more
than 40,000 men and women. In face-to-face interviews, the people were
questioned about symptoms of depression, medical conditions, substance use
(legal and illegal drugs, alcohol), and thoughts of suicide and suicide
"One of our major findings was that there was a relationship between
depression and body weight, but the relationship was different for men and
women," says Faith.
Obesity was associated with a 37% increased risk of depression among women,
but a 25% decreased risk of depression among men. These findings were true for
both blacks and whites.
Similar findings were noted for suicidal thoughts and attempts. For women,
an elevated BMI (a measurement of height and weight) increased the risk of
suicidal thoughts, but for men, an increase in BMI reduced the risk of suicidal
thoughts and attempts.
Some of the most intriguing findings were the psychiatric problems
associated with being underweight for men. Underweight men were 25% more likely
to be depressed, 81% more likely to think about suicide, and 77% more likely to
attempt suicide than men of average weight.
"These are very important findings, but we need to be very careful how
we interpret them," David B. Sarwer, PhD, director of education at the
weight and eating disorder program at the University of Pennsylvania School of
Medicine in Philadelphia, tells WebMD.
"We don't want to fall into the stereotype trap that obesity causes
depression. ... Rather, I think we can interpret [the results] as saying that
in a society that puts such a premium on being thin, and equates thinness with
beauty and success, it is very difficult to be an obese individual. Walking
around in such a society may contribute to things like [clinical] depression
and suicidal ideation. Being obese can take an emotional toll," says
Sarwer, who was not involved in the study.