Science Debunks the Jolly Fat Man Myth

Maybe Santa is jolly, and a little corpulent, but research seems to indicate that big people are not happier.

Research out of the University of Maine are challenging the “jolly fat” hypothesis. The researchers found that bigger people, as defined by high body mass index, are less happy as they get older. There was a correlation between the impact of being overweight and resulting limited functionality leading to depression. However, having depressive symptoms did not predict that someone would become obese later in life. The results were the same for both men and women.

Previously, it had been believed that being heavier as you age acted as a sort of psychological cushion reducing your likelihood of developing depressive symptioms hence, the “jolly fat” hypothesis.

The researchers conducted a longitudinal study to observe the impact of weight gain on depressive symptoms over time. The data collected was over a 5 year period and included information on everything from BMI, to marital status, medical conditions, and general physical fitness. The researchers data came from a group of plus 50 adults in New York state. This research is considered the first of its kind.

Previous research on the link between obesity and depression has found that obese individuals were at a higher risk of reporting symptoms of clinical depression 5-10 years later but the obesity in those studies was self-reported. There is some degree of variance in results based on how BMI is measured in these studies – independent of the arguments for or against BMI as a measure of obesity, the statistical value is still important in research. Judging by results of studies where the participants self-measure BMI, the perception of weight becaomes a mitigating factor. In this study, objectively measured BMI was preferred over self-reported BMI.

The researchers did note that they believe getting people in their group to become more active – to reduce the physical limitations imposed by their weight gain and age – should help to reduce the possibility that they would develop depressive syptoms. It’s not the weight but how it limits you that is the underlying driver of depression.

Dearborn, Peter Joseph, Michael A. Robbins, and Merrill F. Elias. “Challenging the ‘jolly Fat’ Hypothesis among Older Adults: High Body Mass Index Predicts Increases in Depressive Symptoms over a 5-Year Period.” Journal of Health Psychology, November 6, 2016.

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