Obesity is Also Bad for the Brain: How Being Obese Adversely Affects Your Mental Wellness

Since having been recognized as a global epidemic by the World Health Organization in 1997, obesity has now become a full-scale public health crisis. Its prevalence rate is wide-reaching and is no longer limited to just wealthy countries. Obesity is continually and progressively affecting adults and children.  According to the World Health Organization, worldwide obesity has nearly doubled sine 1980 and as of 2008, 500 million men and women are obese.  

Though preventable, it has earned its notoriety as a leading cause of death all over the world. It has been acknowledged as a medical condition that is constantly associated with numerous diseases and various concerns regarding one’s weight, body fat, and even lifestyle. It is, conceivably, high time to look into the connection between obesity and the very core organ that exerts control over all other parts of the body – the brain.

Before going further, a clarification of terminology is needed.  According to current medical terminology, a BMI (body mass index) of 30 or greater is considered obese and a BMI of greater than 40 is considered morbidly obese.  But a BMI of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight.  Being a little overweight isn’t necessarily bad; it may actually even be beneficial as some researchers have pointed out that being slightly overweight is associated with lower mortality.  But  a las, obese does not mean slightly overweight, clinically speaking.

The Connection between Obesity and Brain Health

Recent studies have revealed that obesity does, in fact, significantly affect our brains. While much of the focus was directed at the repercussions of obesity on the cardiovascular, digestive, and endocrine systems, little attention has been given to the detrimental risks that obesity potentially brings to one’s overall mental wellness.

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation has reported that there was an inflammation in the hypothalamus of rodents consuming a high-fat diet (HFD). This inflammation was seen preceding significant weight gain resulting from HFD consumption, which was induced to simulate obesity in rats and mice.  This study conducted at the University of Washington further reported evidence of gliosis in the hypothalamus of both rodents and humans as seen in MRI results. Although the inflammation subsided with neuroprotective mechanisms, it was observed that both the inflammation recurred and gliosis increased simultaneously with continued HFD feeding and became permanent. Since gliosis is indicative of damage in the central nervous system, the study collectively concluded that obesity does cause physical changes in one’s brain, specifically in the brain area that regulates hunger and eating habits. Furthermore, these findings may also indicate a biological response of the brain that may explain the difficulties experienced in controlling food intake and keeping one’s weight off.

Obesity Causes Lower Brain Mass

Another study concerning the effects of obesity on the brain has gained a lot of attention since its publication in 2009 as it presented findings linking obesity to “severe brain degeneration.”  The study was authored chiefly by Paul Thompson, a neurology professor from the University of California – Los Angeles and was published in the Human Brain Mapping Online Journal. In this study, brain scans were performed on 94 elderly individuals who are cognitively normal for five years post-scan. Results revealed strong associations between the body mass index (BMI) and deterioration in various brain regions such as the frontal, temporal, and subcortical areas. It is important to note that these brain areas are vital to certain functions like long-term memory, attention, execution, and movement.  Atrophy in these brain regions was also found to be associated with fasting plasma insulin (FPI) levels and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus (DM2).

While brain volume, in general, was similar among overweight and obese respondents, it was revealed that BMI had a negative correlation with brain atrophy. This means that those with higher BMI have lower brain volumes. On the other hand, respondents with normal BMI did not show atrophy in the scans of the same brain sections. The study further concluded that the brain tissue of these obese people was 8% less compared to those with normal weight. According to Thompson, this tissue depletion is considered a big loss as this causes cognitive depletion and ultimately puts one at a higher risk to brain diseases including Alzheimer’s Syndrome.

Obesity in Children Causes Cognitive Impairment

Overweight children are generally perceived as charming, and in some cases, ideal to some parents’ inaccurate perception of healthy. A study from the University of Chicago, however, has refuted such perception as it reported that there is an increased risk of having cognitive impairment and breathing disorders in sleeping. The study also found a correlation among the factors involved such as body weight, breathing patterns during sleep and neurocognitive functions. These factors were observed to influence each other and were deemed critical since children’s brains are developing rapidly during these stages.

Obesity and Its Detrimental Consequences Are Preventable

Fortunately, there is hope for those who are struggling with obesity. Several research studies have reported that the best way to restore cognitive function is through weight loss. A publication from the Journal of the American College of Nutrition examined 50 obese people in terms of cognitive measures. Consequently, the same subjects were made to lose 2% to 10% of their body weight. Those who dropped some pounds successfully attained an improved brain function and grip strength.

This optimistic breakthrough is supported by a recent study explaining the cycle that involves becoming obese and brain response. Dr. Ronald Khan of the Joslin Diabetes Center and his research team recently concluded that the brain may have control over one’s metabolism, but in turn, the brain and its functions are also significantly affected by the body’s metabolism. The good news is that most of these acquired defects are highly reversible by significant weight loss.

Obesity as a Disease

The American Medical Association (AMA) has officially recognized obesity as a disease, historically ending the long-running debate among medical professionals. This recognition is aimed at changing the approach of the entire medical community in dealing with obesity. Since obesity is now a worldwide problem, categorizing this public threat as a disease may improve financial aid for its medications, counseling, or even obesity-related surgeries. Insurance companies and the Internal Revenue Service have vowed their support by revising coverage manuals and tax deduction policies, respectively. Members of the association have remained faithful that this news would open more doors in tackling obesity as a serious health problem that requires immediate and compulsory attention.

Meanwhile, numerous studies have consistently pointed out that the best way to deal with obesity is to lose excess weight by eating healthy and exercising regularly. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle cannot only prevent a long list of cardiovascular diseases, endocrine problems and other ailments; it can also guarantee a valuable way to attaining a healthy brain and a sound mind.

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