Weight Loss: Will Losing Weight Make You Happier and Healthier?

As I write this post, we are still under lockdown here in the UK and in many ways this seems to have become the new normal after a few weeks of limitation and social distancing.

Certainly my days have formed their own reasonably familiar structure from getting up to exercise and then onto doing some work, playing with the kids, practicing guitar, watching a movie, a bit of reading and then bed. Certainly I've found having a rough sort of routine and being occupied are making the days pass by reasonably smoothly.

And one thing I've been doing as part of my work on mental health and wellbeing, is revisiting the excellent Science of Wellbeing course run by Yale University (you can sign up and take the course for free on Coursera here: The Science of Wellbeing). I first went through this course early last year and found it to be excellent, which is why I'm taking the opportunity to go through the science again. 

As the science shows, what we think will make us happier and what actually does increase our happiness are often two very different things.

The evidence shows that things we think will make us happy, and that often we pursue and hope to attain, such as money, a good job, material stuff and love, often fail to deliver in the happiness stakes.  

But surely that list can't include weight loss? Out strongest intuitions tell us that losing weight and having a better body and looking better simply must increase our happiness, mustn't they? 

Will Losing Weight Make You Happier?

There's no doubt that if you are overweight or obese then losing weight will likely bring you many health benefits. You've heard that many, many times before and you may have even been told you should lose weight by medical professionals. Yet does losing weight also make you happier? Are there psychological benefits that come with the physical benefits of weight loss?

Certainly instinctively we would all expect that losing weight would make someone happier. It's one of the main things that weight loss clients tend to mention and will later report feeling better in themselves. 

Yet the science and evidence tells us something different.

Jackson et al (2014, Psychological Changes following Weight Loss in Overweight and Obese Adults: A Prospective Cohort Study), examined the cardio-metabolic and psychological changes following weight loss in 1,979 overweight/obese adults. They found that weight loss over four years in initially healthy overweight/obese older adults was associated with reduction in cardio-metabolic risk but no psychological benefit, even when changes in health and life stresses were accounted for.

That is, their findings indicate that even among overweight and obese older adults, a group for whom weight loss is recommended, there is no evidence for positive effects of weight loss on mood. Those who had lost weight at the follow up experienced more depressed mood and lower wellbeing that those whose weight had remained stable or who had gained weight over that time.

So it may well be that if you are hoping to feel happier as a result of losing weight, then you may found yourself disappointed even if you do achieve your weight loss.

will losing weight make you healthier and happier hypnotherapy

As Jackson et al conclude,

"The results of this study indicate that overweight or obese adults who experience a 5% reduction in body weight over a four-year period obtain no psychological benefit and may be at risk of increased depression, despite benefiting from the expected reductions in cardio-metabolic risk."

In addition, Knüppel et al (2019, Weight change increases the odds of psychological distress in middle age: bidirectional analyses from the Whitehall II Study) also found that weight gain and loss increase the risk for psychological distress compared with having a stable weight. Their findings suggest that interventions encouraging the maintenance of weight could have a protective effect on mental health.

So the evidence suggests that weight loss itself may not be the great achiever of happiness that we may instinctively expect (although the physical health benefits certainly are real and beneficial for many overweight or obese people).

Why Weight Loss Doesn't Mean Happiness 

Now, of course, as with all research, these results don't necessarily hold true for everyone. I've had many weight loss clients report a subjective increase in their happiness following losing weight and taking control over eating habits. Some of these may be happier that they feel in control, rather than because of the weight loss itself, and others may get a sense of increased wellbeing due to physical health benefits, such as less pain and discomfort when moving or because of improvements in a particular condition or ailment.

And for many, the reason they don't feel happier after losing weight may be because of our human tendency to adapt and get used to things. You may set off on a path of weight loss, and successfully lose weight but then you get used to being thinner at your new weight and start to become dissatisfied with your new weight and body shape. It could become an endless cycle of adjustment and dissatisfaction with your weight and a sense of constantly wanting change to try and feel better, forgetting how far you've already come.

Further, as Knüppel et al (2019) comment in their study, "Compared with a general population, those who are successfully losing weight have been shown to have more depressive symptoms, concerns about health and body shape, engage in binge eating and unhealthy dieting practices."

If you aren't comfortable in your skin and are self critical or hard on yourself, then you may find those traits persevere despite your weight loss, or that the emotional pain of fighting habits and urges to eat generate discontent and inner conflict that precludes feeling better. And, if you struggle with anxiety or depression, those mental health symptoms can continue to impact upon you regardless of your clothes size.

Perhaps more evidence for the need to address psychological and emotional issues as part of your weight loss strategy comes in the form of research into cosmetic surgery. People undergo cosmetic surgery because they are unhappy with some aspect of their appearance, and so if part of losing weight is to look better or achieve some form of desired appearance, then we can gather clues from those who go under the knife for similar goals.

As von Soest reports (2012. Predictors of cosmetic surgery and its effects on psychological factors and mental health: a population-based follow-up study among Norwegian females), "cosmetic surgery patients score more negatively on a variety of psychological and mental health variables prior to surgery than women not undergoing cosmetic surgery. Moreover, although cosmetic surgery may improve specific body-part satisfaction, it does not alleviate mental health problems; on the contrary, cosmetic surgery patients’ mental health problems may increase rather than decrease compared to non-patients. Thus, the results from this study provide no evidence that cosmetic surgery should be used to alleviate mental health problems in women dissatisfied with their own appearance."

Simply changing your appearance is not going to address anxiety and depression symptoms, eating problems or other mental health issues. Achieving your appearance goals is unlikely to increase your happiness and well-being.

Weight Loss And Happiness

All of this evidence means that someone unhappy at their current weight and wanting to lose weight may overestimate how positive achieving that goal may be and may not take into account other aspects that need to be addressed such as depression, anxiety and self-esteem. 

Losing weight if you are overweight or obese is a healthy thing to do. And certainly hypnotherapy can help with your mindset, motivation, persistence and taking control over eating habits.

Yet if your weight loss goal is only so that you become happier then it would be wise to also address mental health issues as well, such as anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. When you feel comfortable and good in your own skin, then your weight loss journey becomes smoother and can bring you that desired increase in happiness and well-being.  

To your success,

Dan Regan

Hypnotherapy in Ely, Newmarket and Online

 

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References:

Jackson, S.E., Steptoe, A., Beeken, R.J., Kivimaki, M. and Wardle, J., 2014. Psychological changes following weight loss in overweight and obese adults: a prospective cohort study. PLoS One, 9(8).

Knüppel, A., Shipley, M.J., Llewellyn, C.H. and Brunner, E.J., 2019. Weight change increases the odds of psychological distress in middle age: bidirectional analyses from the Whitehall II Study. Psychological medicine, 49(15), pp.2505-2514.

von Soest, T., Kvalem, I.L. and Wichstrøm, L., 2012. Predictors of cosmetic surgery and its effects on psychological factors and mental health: a population-based follow-up study among Norwegian females. Psychological medicine, 42(3), pp.617-626.