There’s no doubt slimming down and getting in shape can make you feel good. But new research shows there’s a connection between weight loss and depression. Obesity and depression are both major public health issues that affect many people at the same time. In the United States, about 43% of adults with depression are also living with obesity. Both conditions can make it harder to function on a daily basis and are associated with other health issues such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Unfortunately, the number of people affected by both conditions has also increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, some public health experts warn of a looming “depreobesity” epidemic due to stress from derailed routines, economic insecurity and less social contact, according to recent research in Obesity Medicine.
“The critical need to make effective treatment and prevention programs available and accessible for individuals living with these conditions is more important than ever,” says Dr. Jun Ma, a professor of medicine and researcher specializing in innovative lifestyle intervention studies at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Recent research shows a bidirectional relationship between weight gain and depression where one may cause or exacerbate the other and vice versa. However, there are many potential reasons for this relationship that can vary from person to person, including genetics, surroundings and stress levels. An unhealthy diet and sedentary lifestyle could also be to blame, as both can negatively alter your body’s immune responses, brain structure and function, leading to an increased risk of obesity and depression alike, says Ma.
“It’s easy to see how you can get caught in a vicious cycle where each condition worsens the other,” says Katie Rickel, PhD, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Structure House, a residential weight-management facility in Durham, North Carolina. For some people, depression could lead to obesity, as it may make you feel more lethargic and cause cravings for high-calorie comfort foods. A lack of activity paired with overeating can easily lead to weight gain. As your body changes, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness (key symptoms of depression) can become even more overwhelming. Weight stigma, along with a downtick in self-esteem, could also lead you to spend less time with others (which decreases opportunities for positive experiences and social support — two big buffers against depression), she explains.
Many healthy lifestyle changes that support weight loss like eating more nutritious whole foods, adding regular exercise to your routine, and setting wellness goals can also be helpful in easing depression, says Rickel.
Although more studies on how losing weight might impact depression are needed, emerging research shows you may be able to successfully treat obesity and depression at the same time. For example, Ma led a 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), which found women and men living with obesity and depression who participated in a weight-loss program combined with therapy and as-needed antidepressant medications significantly improved their weight and symptoms of depression after one year.
“However, it’s important to note that losing weight alone — especially if the weight loss is done in an extreme, unsustainable or punishing way — is not a guaranteed antidote to depression,” says Rickel. If your weight-loss efforts are too difficult to stick with (and lead to failure), you may end up exacerbating symptoms of depression and feeling more helpless and hopeless than before. If you falsely believe losing weight will fix your emotional problems, slimming down without addressing underlying causes of depression is unlikely to help. “You’ll remain depressed, just in a smaller body,” she says.
The best way to address symptoms of depression is to meet with a qualified health professional for an accurate diagnosis and evidence-based treatments like psychotherapy and medication. Although weight loss can’t be considered a go-to treatment for depression, you can work on improving your weight and mood simultaneously. For a weight-loss program that may also help reduce symptoms of depression, aim to make small, sustainable changes that make you feel better (not worse), says Rickel. Focus on adding things you enjoy to your life, like nutrient-rich foods, fun workouts and ways to connect with others such as a virtual support group.