Health: Obesity can seriously damage your love life

AS A twenty-something girl about town, Rachel Gilford spent her days confidently, advising companies on how to market themselves; by night, she was suffering in silence, ashamed of her body shape and drifting from one unfulfilling sexual relationship to another.

Rachel is not alone. Recent research suggests our mojo (or lack of it) can have a detrimental effect on not only our physical make-up but also on our most intimate relationships. And while stress and anxiety have often been cited as triggers, a new factor is weighing in.

Studies suggest that obesity – normally blamed for heart attacks and high blood pressure – is playing an increasingly defining role in the bedroom, with some specialists reporting that losing just ten pounds can free up enough testosterone to give your love life a vital boost.

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Figures published in the British Medical Journal found that in a study of more than 12,000 people, compared with normal weight men, obese men were more likely to struggle with erectile dysfunction. The report also stated that bigger women tended to have sex less frequently than their slimmer peers, with obese women half as likely to say sexuality was an important component of their "personal life balance".

Andrew de Beaux, a bariatric surgeon specialising in causes, prevention and treatment of obesity at the Spire Murrayfield Hospital, in Edinburgh, believes libido and its correlation with weight can be a complicated emotional and physical barrier to break down.

"What's the chicken and what's the egg is difficult to know," he says. "People who are considerably overweight don't generally want to expose themselves. But the control of weight itself, the cause of it and the side-effects of that can be very complex.

"Major body image problems can lead to intimacy problems certainly," he adds "In addition, women who are overweight can sometimes create too many male hormones, which in turn can create excess hair or low self-esteem, which with some women can affect sex drive.

"Equally, a man dealing with erectile dysfunction for whatever reason may go on to have a poor body image that can only worsen and lower their libido."

Rachel Gilford first started to put on weight at university; by her mid-twenties, she had ballooned from a svelte size 12 to an uncomfortable size 20. Having had an adventurous sex life during her student years, her twenties brought insecurities she had not believed possible.

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At 25, she began a tentative relationship with a work colleague; acutely aware that she was going to have to get naked after two years of self-imposed celibacy, she crumbled.

"It was like all my confidence was shot. I'd been sexually gregarious in the past, but I remember just lying there, ashamed of what my thighs or midriff looked like. Within a month he'd left me."

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She tried to crash diet, but put on more weight and felt uglier and less sexually attractive than ever.

Diet and fitness guru Rosemary Conley, whose classes run throughout Scotland, says she has been aware of the effects obesity can have on the sex lives of her clients. "People can radiate this 'I'm not worth anything' feeling to partners, friends and colleagues when it comes to weight. That translates into the bedroom," she says.

"There is no doubt that when you are overweight that can create very low esteem. That can lead to not being happy to be seen in their bra and pants, or with the lights on, or actually having any kind of physical relationship at all.

"It's about finding the right support to start with and believing the confidence that comes from positive weight loss can have an extraordinary effect on your life."

Gilford's world turned around when, without warning, she was made redundant. "Suddenly what little control I did have was taken away," she says. "The job had defined me and it was gone. I just wanted something to control so I started counting calories. I kept a food diary, and on each page I would write how I felt that day. It was liberating."

It was around this time she met her husband-to-be. Her weight still creeps up and down but she remains a fairly consistent size 12-14. Just as important, she is back to her confident sexual self.

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"We have date night at least twice a week, where we really talk and discuss what we like and don't like in the bedroom," she says. "He says he loves every curve of me, whatever shape I am and I believe him. Better still, I think after all this time, I love me a little more too."

• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, June 27, 2010