Decoding the relationship between depression and weight gain. By Natasha Liviero, Weighless Magazine, Contribution by Joanna Kleovoulou, Clinical Psychologist from PsychMatters Centre

The relationship between weight gain and depression is a complicated one. Many people either lose or gain weight when they are depressed, while others become depressed as a result of weight gain. However, determining which one really comes first, weight gain or depression, is difficult to decipher thanks to the two conditions being intricately entwined. “In a study done in the Netherlands, it was found that obesity increases the risk for depression in initially non-depressed people by 55% and depression increases the risk for obesity in initially normal-weight people by 58%!” Says Clinical Psychologist, Joanna Kleovoulou.

“For many, sugars act as a mild tranquilzer and antidepressant due to their ability to increase the release of serotonin in the brain temporarily relieving negative emotions” – Dietician, Heidi Lobel

A symbiotic relationship

“Studies have shown that people who are obese are about 25% more likely to experience a mood disorder like depression, compared to those who are not,” says Joanna Kleovoulou. In a 2009 study by researchers at the University of Alabama Birmingham, depressed people gained weight faster than those who were not. What’s more, most of the weight gained was concentrated around their waistlines, which is particularly concerning due to the area being a high-risk zone for conditions like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. But, comfort food is rarely chosen from a health perspective, now is it?

It is well documented that emotional eaters often turn to sugar and refined carbohydrates when feeling down. “For many, sugars act as a mild tranquilizer and antidepressant due to their ability to increase the release of serotonin in the brain (a feel-good hormone), temporarily relieving negative emotions,” says Dietician, Heidi Lobel. Unfortunately, this temporary relief leads to more eating, which in turn leads to weight gain, and so the vicious cycle spirals.  Heidi also notes that people with clinical depression have presented with metabolic disturbances in carbohydrate metabolism (insulin), which may be another factor in the weight gain/depression connection.

“It can be said that food (in particular sugars) is a ‘drug’ for emotional eaters,” says Heidi. “Only when the emotional eater recognises that they are using food as a comforter, mood stabiliser, anti-depressant or tranquiliser, will they be able to address their emotional relationship with food. It is of primary importance for the emotional eater to eat a healthy, balanced and varied diet consisting of small regular meals in order to regulate their physiological hunger. Only when the physiological hunger is well regulated, can the emotional eater recognise and deal with the emotional hunger,” explains Heidi.

“There is no question that obesity and depression are linked in both adults and adolescents. A study of adolescents found that teens with depressive symptoms were more likely to become obese within the next year” – Clinical Psychologist, Joanna Kleovoulou

It is important to treat depression by taking the mental, physical and social aspects of the condition into account. “There is no question that obesity and depression are linked in both adults and adolescents. A study of adolescents found that teens with depressive symptoms were more likely to become obese within the next year,” says Joanna Kleovoulou. “When the limbic system (emotional part) of the brain gets interrupted in someone who is depressed, appetite gets disrupted too.” Interestingly, the limbic system controls mood as well as appetite, which may be why weight gain and depression are so intricately linked. “Faulty thinking, emotional distress signals and destructive behavioural patterns and habits are vital for addressing depression, which will include feelings, attitudes and lifestyle choices around eating,” says Joanna Kleovoulou, Clinical Psychologist from PsychMatters Centre, who advocates collaborating with a dietician and psychologist to effectively address both aspects of the condition.

How to defeat depression

Treating depression usually works best by combining a variety of treatments. However, depression does not only impact the individual affected. Everyone around them feels the ramifications. So, while it is important for the individual to get help, their supporters should empower themselves too. Reading up on the condition and consulting with a professional for guidance will assist in achieving this.

  1. Psychotherapy or Professional Counselling

    “This is also known as ‘talk therapy’ because the individual and the psychologist work together to uncover emotional conflicts that may underlie the depression,” says Psychologist, Claire Newton. “By talking about these conflicts and gaining a better understanding of them, the individual is helped to overcome their difficulties.”

  2. Pharmacotherapy or Medication

    Medications or anti-depressants are not a cure, but can be effective in relieving the symptoms of depression. “There are many different types of anti-depressants which work in different ways, so if one drug is not successful, there are usually others to try. However, be aware, some antidepressants are physically addictive,” says Claire.

  3. Homeopathic treatments

    Based on holistic principles, homeopathic treatments are an option for people who prefer a more holistic approach to treating depression and can often be used in conjunction with orthodox medications.

  4. Nutritional therapy

    As mentioned, a healthy lifestyle and regular, balanced meals will help to regulate physiological hunger. Avoid foods high in caffeine, sugars and refined carbohydrates, while focusing on fresh fruit, vegetables and complex carbohydrates. “A diet high in complex carbohydrates can increase your level of serotonin (Prozac is an example of an antidepressant that increases the level of serotonin in the brain), says Claire. “Foods rich in vitamin B have also shown to have a beneficial effect on reducing depression and include meat, fish, legumes and whole-grain cereals.”

  5. Exercise!

    It is a great way to release endorphins, the body’s feel-good hormone, while simultaneously boosting weight loss and delivering a sense of self-care. If you are new to exercise, begin with walking. Use a pedometer to measure the number of steps you take, as well as to monitor your progress. It is a great motivational tool!

Finally, don’t expect immediate results. Treatment takes time and you may need to experiment with various options before you find the one that works for you. Healing is a process. Take your time and do it effectively.

5 Super-simple ways to beat the blues!

  1. Improve your appearance by wearing make-up and clothing that suits your figure. When you look good, you feel good!
  2. Spend time with positive, uplifting people.
  3. Brighten your mood with colour by adding colourful flowers or accessories in your office and home.
  4. Laugh! Watch a funny movie, a comedian or reminisce happy times with family and friends.
  5. Start a hobby. It will help to take your mind off yourself, introduce you to new people and deliver a sense of accomplishment.

Sources: Joanna Kleovoulou, Heidi Lobel; Claire Newton; WebMd

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