Obesity is a common medical problem in the Australian community. It is estimated that over 70% of Australian males and over 50% of Australian females are overweight or obese. Obesity not only contributes to a vast number of medical problems (including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obstructive sleep apnoea) but it can also impair your overall quality of life, self esteem, social functioning and sexuality. This article focuses on the latter issue, describing the links between obesity and sexuality.
Obesity is defined as an excess in body fat or, more precisely, as a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30.
The incidence of obesity in Australia has increased at an alarming rate, partly due to increasingly sedentary lifestyles (with less obligate needs for physical activity) and easy accessibility to cheap, high-fat foods.
Obesity has been a focus of many health initiatives in recent years, due to recognition of the seriousness of the problem and the overall detriments to health. However, only a few studies have specifically looked at the relationships between sexuality and obesity.
Sexuality refers to the individual part of your personality that defines your sexual behaviours, culture, beliefs and attitudes. As you can imagine, it can be affected by a huge range of factors. In particular, medical conditions such as pain or obesity may alter your sexual desire and functioning.
Medical experience has shown that obese individuals commonly experience some sexual dissatisfaction and/or sexual difficulties related to their weight. These problems may stem from low self-esteem, poor body image or previous bad sexual experiences. The media also paints images that one has to be thin to be attractive. As such, if you are overweight, you may feel like a social outcast, unattractive and undesirable to the opposite sex.
You may be surprised to learn these feelings are not uncommon and that you can be helped! A good start would be discussing your sexuality issues with your medical practitioner.
To summarise the results of studies, it has been found that overweight individuals do have increased sexual difficulties. Impairments include lack of sexual enjoyment, lack of sexual desire, difficulty with sexual performance, and avoidance of sexual encounters.
Studies have also found that reduced sexual quality of life is more common in obese women compared to men, but men more frequently experience problems with sexual performance (such as erectile dysfunction).
Fortunately, today you have access to a wide variety of weight loss strategies that can help treat your obesity, and hopefully improve your sexuality. You may consider diets, meal replacement programs, lifestyle changes, cognitive behavioural therapy, weight loss drugs and weight loss surgery in the management of your obesity. Your doctor can assist you in choosing which treatments are appropriate to you.
In addition, you may find sexual therapies and body image improvement strategies can help in treating your sexuality issues. Unfortunately, the role of the above treatments in the management of impaired sexuality is still blurry.
Some research has found that non-surgical methods of weight loss (including diet, lifestyle changes and medications) lead to improvements in sexual functioning, while the effects of weight loss surgery on sexuality are far more controversial. In most cases, if you are morbidly obese, surgery will lead to significant improvements in your quality of life, self-esteem and sexuality.
However, you must recognise that surgery can have side effects, such as excess flabby skin and abdominal skin overhang, that may impair sexuality.
You may also find the marked amount of weight loss may create identity issues, distort your body image and lead to new relationship demands. Some bypass surgeries can also negatively affect your fertility status and sexual function, particularly in men.
It is therefore recommended that you consider all your weight loss options and the pros and cons of therapy prior to making your decision.
In summary, obesity may have a substantial impact on your overall quality of life, and effective weight loss can lead to marked improvements in your self esteem, health and well-being. It is recommended that you discuss relevant issues, such as sexuality problems, with your doctor, who can help you to understand the available treatments and offer reassurance regarding the frequency of the condition. In the future, research will hopefully identify the most effective treatments for obesity-related sexuality problems.
For further information, please refer to our lifestyle article on obesity and sexuality.