Depression And Weight Gain: Why It Happens

Reviewed by Rashonda Douthit, LCSW

Published 01/07/2021

One of the most frequently reported symptoms of depression is appetite changes, and people can either lose weight or gain weight because of this. When people are depressed, weight gain is believed to be more common than weight loss, and it can happen for a number of reasons and can even lead to physical health problems related to being overweight or obese. In this article, you will learn about some of the reasons why depression can alter a person’s appetite and cause them to gain weight.

Comfort Eating

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Comfort foods, which are foods or drinks that tend to be processed, and high in fats, carbohydrates, and added sugars that taste good and can uplift a person’s mood and give a temporary rush of energy, why people who are depressed can gain weight.

However, comfort or emotional eating isn’t a trait that is exclusive to depression. It’s pretty common in other disorders, such as anxiety and binge eating disorder, which often coexists with depression.

People who consume comfort foods will eat them because it makes them feel good, even though it’s often short-lived, and it can provide relief for some of the negative feelings and emotions they are having.

There are many possible triggers for emotional eating, and it can be difficult to keep under control. It also influences the reward pathways in your brain, encouraging people to continue eating. [1]

Nonetheless, the benefits can quickly come crashing down, and people will continue to crave and consume more to achieve the same effect.

These foods are typically very high in calories, so they can quickly add up if consumed very frequently. If the calories taken in are more than the energy that the body burns off, this will cause a person to gain weight.

Because they are so accessible and appealing, comfort foods are often eaten excessively, which can contribute to becoming overweight or obese.

At the same time, obesity can also contribute to depression and make it worse as well; for example, even though they know it’s not a healthy choice and will feel guilty about their decision, a person can still eat or drink a particular food because it does provide a sense of temporary relief.

This can cause chronic issues that never get solved because none of the issues are being addressed properly.

Therefore, to manage weight related to comfort foods, a healthy diet that provides a sustainable energy source throughout the day will be essential for limiting the consumption of calories and having a long-term benefit on a person’s mood.

They will also need to find ways to manage their stress to prevent the urge to start eating to cope with their feelings and emotions, and this most likely will require others' support, including a mental health professional.

A Lack Of Motivation

Another reason depression can lead to weight gain is that it can affect a person’s energy levels and drive and motivation to do things.

It’s common for depressed people to want to be alone and isolate themselves from people and lose interest in doing things that they once enjoyed.

This means that depressed people are spending more time inside being sedentary, which can cause them to gain weight because they are expending fewer calories than someone who is out and being active.

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This means that people struggling with depression weight gain are also less likely to want to go and commit to exercise, even though it’s a viable solution to treating the condition.

For example, getting exercise can help create goals that can then improve a person’s self-esteem, and it can also simply feel good due to the release of endorphins.

Engaging in physical activity helps burn calories, which is needed to maintain or lose weight, and as mentioned before, if they aren’t being burned, they are being stored in the form of body fat.

When combined with poor eating habits, such as comfort foods, having no motivation to be active is a recipe for weight gain, making a person feel more depressed and start eating more, leading to a vicious cycle.

Neurochemistry

Depression is linked to neurotransmitters in the brain, or rather, a lack of or unregulated levels of them.

The main neurotransmitters associated with mood are serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Out of these three, serotonin is believed to be the biochemical responsible for most major depressive cases.

In addition to affecting a person’s mood, serotonin can also influence and regulate appetite. Studies show that people who are depressed and, therefore, most likely have reduced serotonin levels will be more susceptible to an increased appetite eat more often, which results in weight gain.

Essentially, when people have higher but normal serotonin levels in their brains, it can help suppress a person’s appetite.

When people take medication for depression, the goal is to get these neurotransmitters normal and healthy. One of the most common ones to do this is selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI).

SSRIs are antidepressants, and there are many different kinds of them that people can be prescribed. They work by blocking the reuptake of serotonin in the neurons in the rest of the body, increasing overall levels, so more of it is available for your brain.

When the brain can have healthy levels of serotonin, people can find significant relief for the symptoms that they’re having, which includes their appetite going back to normal. However, it can take a few weeks for these types of medications to take effect.

However, while antidepressants are considered to be safe, in general, it’s still possible to have side effects, and one of them is weight gain.

It is estimated that around 25 percent of people who try antidepressants can experience a weight gain of 10 percent or more. [2]

This is because it is believed that medications, like SSRIs and other antidepressants, may alter a person's metabolism and change how a person burns calories. If it slows down, energy isn’t being burned efficiently, and therefore, people can gain weight because excess calories are being stored. [3]

How To Treat Depression & Manage Weight

As mentioned in the previous section, medication, such as antidepressants, is one way people can combat depression. For many people, this can solve their weight issues, but it can also be part of the problem for others.

If you have been on antidepressants for a while and you’ve noticed unwanted weight gain, you should consult with your doctor to see what other options you have - not all antidepressants are equal, and they can affect other people differently; you might be able to find one with fewer side effects, including weight gain.

Along with medication, therapy is also highly recommended in treating depression because it can help people address the negative thinking patterns and behaviors that depression causes, which leads to things like having little to no motivation and unhealthy eating habits, including overeating.

Getting treatment for depression can allow individuals to make the changes they need to also start taking action to manage or lose weight. For example, people can:

  • Find healthier coping skills instead of depending on food for relief.
  • Feel more open to trying healthier food options
  • Discover or reignite the motivation to find new hobbies and activities, like exercising

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Getting an accurate treatment requires an accurate diagnosis from a doctor or mental health professional. Still, if you’re experiencing symptoms such as these, you should seek help as soon as possible:

  • Feelings of sadness or a low mood
  • Insomnia
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • A lack of interest or motivation for things you’ve once enjoyed
  • Anxiety, agitation, or angry outbursts
  • A sense of worthlessness or guilt
  • Difficulty concentration
  • Substance abuse, self-harm, and suicidal ideation

All of these can be signs of depression, and a professional will be able to determine whether or not you have it by going over your symptoms and how long you’ve had them.

Before meeting with your mental health provider, you can also try taking this free depression test to determine if you are dealing with the condition. It’s not a formal diagnosis, but it can help mentally prepare you for getting one and starting treatment.

Conclusion

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If you’re struggling with depression and weight gain, you’re not alone. Depression and anxiety are two of the most common mental health conditions, and weight gain is often a symptom. However, by understanding why depression can cause weight gain, you can take the necessary steps to counteract it and get better. There are many strategies that can help you live a happier and healthier lifestyle.

References

  1. Godman, H. (2017, August). Struggling with emotional eating? Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/diet-and-weight-loss/struggling-with-emotional-eating
  2. Bouchez, C. (2011, June 28). Weight Gain and Antidepressants (Including SSRIs). Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/depression/features/antidepressants-weight-gain
  3. Nihalani, N., Schwartz, T. L., Siddiqui, U. A., & Megna, J. L. (2011). Weight Gain, Obesity, and Psychotropic Prescribing. Journal of Obesity, 2011, 1-9. doi:10.1155/2011/893629