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PTSD and Obesity

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Updated October 28, 2008

PTSD and Obesity
(c) 2008 iStockphoto.com/Ernesto Solla Dominguez

PTSD and obesity commonly co-occur. People with PTSD are at risk for being diagnosed with other psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety disorders, and substance use disorders. Besides psychiatric disorders, compared to those without PTSD, people with PTSD are also more likely to have problems with their physical health. For example, PTSD has been connected to such physical health problems such as:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Back pain
  • Diabetes
  • Ulcers

Some of these physical health problems may be due to the fact that PTSD has been connected to high rates of obesity.

Obesity

Obesity is determined by your body mass index or BMI. Basically, your BMI is a number that describes the relationship between your weight and height (You can calculate your BMI here). A BMI of over 25 is considered overweight and over 30 is considered obese.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, obesity rates in general have been increasing dramatically over the past 20 years. In fact, in 2006, in the United States, only four states had a obesity rate of less than 20%. Twenty-two states had rates of obesity at or greater than 25%.

The Link Between Obesity and PTSD

A group of researchers from the Wellington School of Medicine and Health Sciences at Otago University in New Zealand surveyed approximately 13,000 people in order to determine whether or not there was any link between particular psychiatric disorders and obesity. Out of all the disorders they look at, the strongest relationship was between PTSD and obesity. Specifically, among people who were classified as obese, approximately 6% had PTSD.

Another study by researchers at the Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center (Richmond, Virginia) looked at obesity rates among a group of male veterans with PTSD. Their results are alarming. The average BMI score for the veterans they looked at was 30, which is in the obese range. In addition, approximately 84% of the veterans could be considered overweight or obese based on their BMI score.

Why Are Obesity and PTSD Connected?

The answer to this question is not completely known just yet; however, PTSD has been found to lead to a number of unhealthy behaviors, such as poor eating habits, alcohol and drug use[/link">, and smoking that may all increase the risk for being overweight or obese.

In addition, people with PTSD may be less active than people without PTSD. They may avoid certain people or places for fear that memories or thoughts about their traumatic experience may be triggered. This inactivity may also then increase the likelihood of being overweight or obese.

Making Positive and Healthy Lifestyle Changes

First, to the extent that your PTSD symptoms are interfering with establishing a healthy lifestyle, it's important to seek out treatment for PTSD. The Anxiety Disorder Association of America provides a list of therapists across the United States who specialize in the treatment of PTSD. By reducing the symptoms of PTSD (especially avoidance symptoms), you may also reduce your risk for obesity. Behavioral activation is one technique in particular that provides an easy way to increase the level of activity in your life, help you meet your goals, and can reduce PTSD symptoms.

As part of your treatment for PTSD, it may also be important to start focusing on living a healthier lifestyle. A healthy diet, exercise, and eliminating bad habits (for example, stopping smoking) may reduce your risk for being overweight or obese.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control. U.S. obesity trends 1985-2006. Atlanta, GA: Author.

Green, B.L., & Kimerling, R. (2004). Trauma, PTSD, and health status. In P.P. Schurr & B.L. Green (Eds.), Physical health consequences of exposure to extreme stress (pp. 13-42). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Scott, K.M., McGee, M.A., Wells, J.E., Oakley Browne, M.A. (2008). Obesity and mental disorders in the adult general population. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 64, 97-105.

Vieweg, W.V.R., Fernandez, A., Julius, D.A., Satterwhite, L., Benesek, J., Feuer, S.J., Oldham, R., & Pandurangi, A.K. (2006). Body mass index relates to males with posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of the National Medical Association, 98, 580-586.

Weisberg, R.B., Bruce, S.E., Machan, J.T., Kessler, R.C., Culpepper, L., & Keller, M.B. (2002). Nonpsychiatric illness among primary care patients with trauma histories and posttraumatic stress disorder. Psychiatric Services, 53, 848-854.

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