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Study: If You’re Obese and Mentally Ill, Weight Loss is Still Possible

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When you’re severely depressed, or suffering from another mental disorder, healthy eating and consistent exercise are possibly the last things on your mind.

But a new study suggests that it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, overweight and obese people with severe mental illnesses can successfully lose weight with the right weight loss program.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that obese and overweight people with serious mental illnesses in an intervention group were able to lose on average seven pounds over a period of 18 months.

Also, 37.8 percent of participants in the intervention group lost at least 5 percent of their beginning weight, compared to only 22.7 percent of the participants in the control group.

The intervention group participants also had a higher percentage of people who lost weight or at least kept to their initial weight (63.9 percent compared to 49.2 percent of the control group).

There were 291 participants with mental disorders like major depression, schizophrenia, a schizoaffective disorder or bipolar disorder. All participants were either overweight or obese, and they were recruited from community psychiatric rehabilitation outpatient programs.

The intervention group in the study consisted of participants going to group exercise classes, as well as going to individual and group sessions that focused on weight management.

Sessions focused on topics like healthy diet, including a reduction of sugary foods, an increase in healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, and a reduction in overall calories.

Participants in the control group were given information about physical activity and nutrition, and they received general health classes.

The study mentioned that obesity is more common in people with severe mental illnesses, especially due to weight gain caused by medication, and a lack of exercise and unhealthy eating.

There are other challenges, such as memory impairment and inadequate body functioning, as well as psychiatric symptoms, which can slow down the new learning processes associated with weight loss programs.

Although participants in the study were able to overcome some of the challenges in order to successfully lose weight, a bigger concern is how to make weight loss intervention programs accessible and affordable for the general public and people with mental illnesses, according to an article in MedPage Today. Also, there were some concerns about declining participation in the study over the 18 months.

Dr. Michael Jensen of the Mayo Clinic said in the article that future studies will need to focus on less expensive and intensive treatment options that have similar beneficial outcomes.

Dr. Jennifer Hanes, a board-certified emergency physician and author of “The Princess Plan: Shrink Your Waist. Expand Your Beauty,” said in an email that the study leaves no excuse for avoiding weight loss, even for people with severe mental illnesses.

She has personally lost over 70 pounds after she researched the connection between the body and mind.

“Body fat is directly connected to brain chemistry,” Hanes said. “There is research to suggest every woman who is obese is by definition deficient in serotonin (the chemical increased by taking medications like Prozac and Lexapro).”

She gives some suggestions for feeling better, which can also aid your attempts at weight loss.

“The goal should be finding ways to increase ways to feel great about oneself, thus increasing those feel-good chemicals,” Hanes said. “Ways to increase serotonin include protein at breakfast, light exercise and restorative sleep.”

There are a multitude of weight loss tips, but it’s more difficult to find tips specifically for people with mental illnesses.

If you have a mental illness, or know someone who suffers from one, what are your best tips for losing weight while battling the symptoms of a mental illness? Share in the comments below.


Daumit, Gail L. and Dickerson, Faith B., et al. The New England Journal of Medicine. A Behavioral Weight-Loss Intervention in Persons with Serious Mental Illness. Web. March 27, 2013.

Neale, Todd. MedPage Today. Mental Illness Not a Barrier to Weight Loss. Web. March 27, 2013.

Hanes, Jennifer. Email interview. March 27, 2013.

Reviewed March 28, 2013
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.