Carrying just ten kilograms of excess body fat increases the risk of depression by seventeen per cent. The more fat, the greater the probability of developing depression. This is the conclusion of a new study carried out by researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark.
The study’s last author, Dr. Søren Dinesen Østergaard, said: ‘Our study also indicated that the location of the fat on the body makes no difference to the risk of depression. This suggests that it is the psychological consequences of being overweight or obese which lead to the increased risk of depression, and not the direct biological effect of the fat. If the opposite was true we would have seen that fat located centrally on the body increased the risk the most, as it has the most damaging effect in biological terms.’
Prior studies in the field have predominantly used Body Mass Index (BMI) to measure obesity. BMI is calculated solely on the basis of body weight and height and is therefore a fairly crude measure, that does not, for example, take build and muscle mass into account.
‘BMI is an inaccurate way of measuring overweight and obesity. Many elite athletes with a large muscle mass and a low body fat mass will have a BMI above 25, which is classified as overweight according to the common definition. This obviously doesn’t make much sense. Therefore, one of the strengths of our study is that we’ve been able to zoom in and look at the specific relationship between the amount of body fat and the risk of depression,’ explains Dr. Østergaard.
In the study, which has been published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, the researchers have analysed data from two large genetic data sets: the UK Biobank, which contains data on the correlation between genetic variants and physical measurements (including body fat mass distributed around parts of the body); and the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium, which contains information on the correlation between genetic variants and depression.
Dr. Østergaard also highlights his research group’s choice of the ‘Mendelian randomisation’ method as the main reason the study was successful. He also emphasises that the findings are particularly significant in light of the fact that almost 40 per cent of the world’s adult population is overweight.
‘As it appears to be the psychological consequences of obesity, such as a negative body image and low self-esteem that is the main driving force behind the increased risk of depression, society’s efforts to combat obesity must not stigmatise, as this will probably increase the risk of depression even further. It is important to bear this in mind so we can avoid doing more harm than good in the effort to curb the obesity epidemic,’ says Dr. Østergaard.