Is mental health the forgotten factor in fighting obesity in Canada?

Nadine Bells
Daily Brew

Mental health and obesity: some doctors are calling it a "double epidemic."

And while not all obese individuals suffer from mental illness, ignoring the connection between the two is what's keeping Canadians from winning the war on obesity, experts say.

Sharon Kirkey of Postmedia News reported on the connection:

"Depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, attention deficit disorders, post traumatic stress, addictions — all can cause changes in appetite, energy and metabolism that can prime people to gain weight. What's more, antidepressants, mood stabilizers and newer generation anti-psychotics — drugs Canadians are being prescribed in record numbers — can themselves cause rapid and dramatic weight gain," Kirkey wrote.

She claims that the "eat less, move more" mantra is hardly helpful to those suffering from mental health issues in this country.

"We absolutely have not looked at this issue at all," says Dr. Valerie Taylor, chief psychiatrist at Toronto's Women's College Hospital.

"This is probably one of the number one reasons that we're not getting anywhere in terms of battling the obesity epidemic."

In Canada, there are more overweight adults than there are "normal weight" Canadians, with 62 per cent of the population being either overweight or obese.

Dr. Arya Sharma, chair in obesity research and management at the University of Alberta, points out that there is no mention of obesity in the recent report from Canada's mental health commission — and reports about obesity rarely mention mental health.

"With all the talk about healthy weights, there's a lot of focus on diet and exercise, but I don't see any focus on improving the mental health of our kids and our adults. And that is a huge part of what is really driving the obesity epidemic," he says.

Physical & Health Education Canada warns that obesity in childhood can lead to psychological health problems, but doesn't acknowledge that mental health issues might be contributing to the problem in the first place.

The article makes it sound like Canadians are fat and unhappy, something that doesn't translate in other reports. A recent global study on the social and economic well-being of nations ranked Canada as the fifth-happiest country in the world — and that ranking apparently took both mental and physical health into account.

According to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, 73 per cent of Canadians self-rated their mental health as being either excellent or very good in 2005.

Still, in 2010, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranked Canada as the sixth most obese country in the world.

Why don't these stats point to a mental-health-obesity connection?

"A common assumption is that individuals are in the best position to judge their own welfare," the OECD says, adding that when people don't realize the effects of what they eat, this doesn't always apply.

This month, a three day Hot Topic Conference on obesity and mental health will be held in Toronto, where professionals can help identify research priorities and discuss practical approaches to both issues.

If obesity can hurt your mental health, and mental health issues can lead to weight gain, why has it taken health professionals so long to connect the dots?

And if the two are linked, then maybe we aren't as happy as studies say we are.