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The Science Linking Obesity & Mental Health

Here’s a common question for uncommon times. Do mental health and obesity have a direct connection? Could fixing one solve the other? Groundbreaking new data suggests so, and this science anchors the latest episode of Brain Over Belly.

Dr. Brown opens by explaining that people who struggle with obesity not only tend to struggle with mental health, but have wholly different brains than people of normal weight. This drives the chicken-or-the-egg question; does obesity cause mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD, or vice versa?

Scientists are still working toward something definitive, but Dr. Brown cites a fascinating study detailing something we all experience…even if we don’t know the name.

Chocolate Chip Cookie Conundrum

The study scanned the brains of adolescents as they ate different types of food. The results were staggering. In the very moments of eating hyperpalatable or processed foods, their brains became more impulsive. Right then and there, boom, instant. This impulsivity is known in psychology as reward discounting. It’s when we go in for the cookie and sacrifice the longer-term benefits of eating healthy. We are discounting broader, positive goals for instant gratification.

To further grasp this, think of its opposite. Studying hard in school so you can forge a thriving career is the opposite of reward discounting. So is a yoga regimen to ensure flexibility in later years, or habitually feeding a savings account.

Rewiring Your Brain Circuitry

So, how exactly does obesity affect mental health? It turns out that anxiety, depression and PTSD share the exact brain circuitry that obesity does. This is massive news for the future of health.

Dr. Brown details the joy he gets from discussing mental health benefits with his patients. When he can reference science illustrating obesity AND depression are caused by the same circuitry, patients understand their current weight and emotions are simply not their fault the way they think it is.

This segues into the medical miracle that is bariatric surgery. The stapling rewires the brain, enabling patients to rewrite their life story and improve their mental health while losing weight. The brain literally gets bigger. Cognitive markers like focus and memory are enhanced. This neuroplasticity is only bolstered by the tools Dr. Brown recommends, be it the personal power statement, timing bites, resonance breathing or meditation.

Filling the Void

Stories define this episode, none of which are more poignant than Dr. Brown’s relationship with a military veteran.

The man’s PTSD was so intense that he would constantly numb himself with an array of substances. He was able to quit drugs and alcohol, but the substances were simply replaced with food. He became morbidly obese, and many years later, met Dr. Brown.

After a successful bariatric weight loss surgery at Idaho BMI, a routine check-in became one of Dr. Brown’s most memorable. “Something strange is happening”, the man explained. “I’ve had PTSD for 25 years. Eight weeks out from surgery, that void I was always trying to fill, is gone. I feel…calm. ”

Not only did this man’s weight change, the man himself did, through bariatric surgery, physical and mental exercises, and grasping our brain’s power.

Nutritional Psychology

This story is practically a case study for the developing field known as nutritional psychology. We know food affects weight and physicality, but we are now understanding how it shapes our brains and self-identity. This exploding field excites Dr. Brown because of the empowerment his patients can draw from it.

Let’s really distill this connection by circling back to those adolescents who were chowing down on chocolate chip goodness. So they get a little impulsive and treat their taste buds, what’s the big deal?

The big deal is identity formation, especially for our youth. When behavior like this is repeated it crafts identity, one that says “I don’t have willpower,” “I lack discipline,” “I’m lazy,” “I’m a bad person.” Shame and guilt supplement reward discounting, beginning the downward spiral toward obesity and mental health struggles.

Face Fear to Reach Potential

We close by analyzing fear through some groundbreaking research by Andrew Huberman. The Stanford neuroscientist asserts that facing fear doesn’t just provide temporary relief, but permanent strength. Confidence comes from doing hard things, and looking our obesity or our depression square in the eyes can be plenty difficult.

Fear’s been quite present over the past 18 months. COVID hasn’t just made millions sick. It’s made almost everyone heavier, AND more anxious if not outright depressed. Doctors have never seen such a rapid increase in weight, and regression of mental health. Coincidence?

Patients tapping into their highest human potential is the reason Dr. Brown drives to his Meridian, ID clinic every day. He cherishes the ability to learn with his patients that weight loss is not about looking better. It’s about feeling better, physically and mentally.

If you, or someone you know, are struggling with obesity, anxiety, depression or PTSD, this episode might just change your life.

The Brain Over Belly podcast is available everywhere you listen to podcasts. Subscribe at Listen Boise now.

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