Obesophobia (Fear of Gaining Weight)

Overview

What is obesophobia?

Obesophobia is an intense, overwhelming fear of gaining weight or getting fat. The condition is a specific phobia (fear), which is a type of anxiety disorder. It’s also called pocrescophobia.

Many people think about their weight a lot and may seem to diet constantly. That’s not necessarily obesophobia. People with obesophobia go to extremes to prevent weight gain or to lose weight. They may:

  • Bring their own food everywhere so they can control what they eat.
  • Criticize themselves excessively.
  • Eat very small portions of food.
  • Exercise excessively.
  • Skip activities that involve eating.
  • Spend a lot of time and money on attempts to look, feel or be thinner, including surgeries.

People with obesophobia can become underweight or malnourished. But the fear still makes them obsess over the possibility of gaining weight. A person with obesophobia may understand that the fear is irrational but not be able to control it.

Obesophobia can also lead to other mental health disorders, such as:

What is a phobia?

A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder that causes overwhelming fear of an object, event or situation. To others, the fear may seem irrational or silly, but the person with the phobia feels genuinely threatened and afraid. There are hundreds of specific phobic disorders.

How common is obesophobia?

It’s hard to know exactly how many people have a specific phobia, like obesophobia. Many people may keep this fear to themselves or may not recognize they have it. About 1 in 10 American adults and 1 in 5 teenagers will deal with a specific phobia disorder at some point in their lives.

Obesophobia is most common among teenage girls, but it can happen to men or women, from childhood to adulthood.

What’s the difference between obesophobia and eating disorders?

Obesophobia and eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are related. They cause some of the same behaviors. They often occur together.

But eating disorders are more severe and complex. They involve a distorted view of one’s own body. A person with anorexia or bulimia might be abnormally thin but still think they’re overweight when they look in the mirror.

Also, eating disorders aren’t always related to body weight. Someone with an eating disorder may use the behaviors to cope or gain a sense of control. Some may have unresolved emotional issues. Obesophobia is strictly about the fear of gaining weight or becoming overweight.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes a fear of gaining weight?

Mental health professionals aren’t sure what causes specific phobias, such as obesophobia. But most believe it is caused by a combination of:

  • Environment: Some cultures tend to overemphasize the way people look and their weight. Some people may be raised to believe that gaining weight is sinful or disgusting. These beliefs can contribute to obesophobia.
  • Genetics: A personal or family history of phobias, eating disorders and other anxiety-related conditions can increase the chances of developing obesophobia.
  • Traumatic experiences: Life experiences may lead to obesophobia. One example is a parent or peer who tells a child repeatedly that the child is fat. Another example is a childhood bully making fun of someone’s weight.

What are the symptoms of obesophobia?

A person with a fear of getting fat may experience physical symptoms of anxiety or panic when they think about gaining weight:

Diagnosis and Tests

How is obesophobia diagnosed?

There are no tests to diagnose the fear of gaining weight. A healthcare provider can diagnose the condition based on discussions with you about:

  • Your symptoms.
  • How long they’ve been happening.
  • How they interfere in your life.

Again, many people think about weight and diet often. But for a diagnosis of obesophobia, a person’s fear must:

  • Cause extreme anxiety.
  • Lead to significant stress or affect your daily life.
  • Have been happening for at least six months.
  • Be out of proportion with any actual problems regarding your weight.
  • Lead you to take unreasonable steps in an attempt to look, feel or be thin.
  • Make you avoid specific situations that involve eating.
  • Produce physical symptoms of anxiety or panic attacks.

Management and Treatment

What are the treatments for obesophobia?

People with obesophobia should talk to a healthcare provider to ensure they manage their anxiety and prevent other disorders. Possible treatments include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is structured psychotherapy that can help a person understand and control thoughts and emotions. This talk therapy can help people unlearn negative thoughts that happen when they think about gaining weight. Over time, they may be able to change their emotions associated with food, exercise and weight.
  • Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy, sometimes called desensitization, helps people confront their fears gradually. Your therapist might gradually expose you to the idea of eating well or gaining appropriate weight to be healthy in a controlled environment. Exposure therapy starts with something less scary, like looking at pictures of people who aren’t overly thin. Eventually, you may be asked to think about gaining one pound or eating something high in calories. Through increasing exposure, people can learn to manage obesophobia and stay at a healthy weight.
  • Hypnotherapy: Hypnotherapy can put a person in a trance-like but focused state. A person under hypnosis is more open to suggestions and change. A hypnotist may be able to help a hypnotized person to be less afraid of healthy weight gain.
  • Medications: A variety of anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications can lessen the symptoms of anxiety or depression if they interfere with your life. But medications are not a cure for obesophobia.

Prevention

How can I reduce my risk of obesophobia?

Mental health professionals don’t fully understand what causes specific fears, such as obesophobia, which means there’s no proven way to prevent it. But treating the condition can help you prevent the development of related anxiety disorders.

Outlook / Prognosis

Can obesophobia be cured?

There’s no cure for obesophobia, but learning new habits with a trained therapist helps most people who practice regularly.

Living With

How can I best learn to cope with a fear of getting fat?

Many people learn to manage obesophobia and other specific fears. It helps to work with a mental health professional and to practice techniques to manage anxiety, such as:

  • Breathing exercises.
  • Muscle relaxation.
  • Meditation.
  • Yoga.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Obesophobia, also known as pocrescophobia, is an anxiety disorder that involves an intense fear of gaining weight or getting fat. Many people worry about their weight and go on frequent diets. But people with obesophobia take extreme action to control and lose weight, even if they are already underweight or malnourished. Obesophobia can cause extreme anxiety symptoms and lead to other anxiety or eating disorders, so it’s important to talk with a healthcare provider about treatment options.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/22/2022.

References

  • Merck Manual [Consumer Version]. Specific Phobic Disorders. (https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/mental-health-disorders/anxiety-and-stress-related-disorders/specific-phobic-disorders) Accessed 3/15/2022.
  • National Institute of Mental Health. Specific Phobia. (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/specific-phobia) Accessed 3/15/2022.
  • Satterfield JM, Feldman MD. Anxiety. In: Behavioral Medicine: A Guide for Clinical Practice. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2021.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. DSM-IV to DSM-5 Specific Phobia Comparison. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519704/table/ch3.t11/) Accessed 3/15/2022.

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