According to the CDC, 43% of adults diagnosed with depression are obese.  Today we’ll look at why. But first let’s answer the common question:   

What’s the difference in being sad and clinical depression?  

Being sad is a response to a situation, event, that causes you to be upset or feels painful.  Sad is a feeling. 

Depression is a mental illness.  It is not a feeling.  It is a way of being and a general state of being all the time.  Depressed people may be able to go to work, to the movies and even on a family vacation.  But it can still feel impossible to find joy or happiness in these things.  Since being sad is a feeling that comes and goes, people who feel sad will still have moments of laughing, smiling, or thinking positively.

Depression can be marked by lack of motivation, caring about oneself and a feeling of hopelessness.  They may not be able to see how they can ever feel like they used to. 

Some people with depression lose their appetite and lose weight.  Others do just the opposite. 

Let’s look at why someone with depression may gain weight.

Reason 1 -You don’t feel like moving, much less exercising. 

 You don’t have the motivation to go for a walk. Self-care is not a priority.  When you aren’t burning calories or building muscle by exercising weight gain is just around the corner.

Reason 2 – You feel hopeless and therefore are not concerned with consequences. 

It simply does not matter that your weight gain may lead to diabetes or a heart attack.  It doesn’t matter if you eat pizza for dinner, grilled chicken or if you eat at all.   

Reason 3 – For some, comfort food provides a temporary improvement in mood.

If prior to your depression you engaged in soothing or avoiding your feelings by eating, this habit will persist when you are depressed.

Eating a meal which is rich in carbohydrates triggers the release of insulin in the body. Insulin helps let blood sugar into cells where it can be used for energy and simultaneously it triggers the entry of tryptophan to brain. Tryptophan in the brain affects the neurotransmitters levels such as serotonin.  Serotonin reduces depression and anxiety. 

It is suggested that low glycemic index (GI) foods such as some fruits and vegetables, whole grains, pasta, etc. are more likely to provide a moderate but lasting effect on brain chemistry, mood, and energy level than the high GI foods – primarily sweets – that tend to provide immediate but temporary relief.

Again, if you don’t care about your health or long-term consequences of what you eat, then you’ll reach for the lasagna over the lean meat and veggies every single time. 

Reason 4 – Increased cortisol levels due to depression. 

Depression can be a result of ongoing stress.  When you are stressed, the body produces the hormone cortisol.  If prolonged, this can result in serotonin (feel good chemical) production being in impaired.  Thus resulting in depression.  Excessive levels of cortisol can also increase appetite and fat storage. 

Signs your cortisol may not be functioning properly are fatigue, chronic pain with no apparent cause, memory issues and a drop in blood pressure upon standing.  

See a doctor if you think your cortisol may not be functioning properly.  This information is not intended to diagnose.  

Reason 5 – Weight gain from an anti-depressant medication.

You get professional help and decide it is best for you to start taking an anti-depressant.  But you’ve heard rumors it will cause weight gain.  You need a skilled professional to work with you and try to find the medication that helps your symptoms but ALSO does not cause weight gain. 

Weight gain is listed a side effect for some anti-depressants.  Lexapro, Zoloft, Paxil and Prozac are in a category of SSRI drugs and approximately 25% of people who take these drugs gain weight.  Clinical trials don’t investigate why but researchers hypothesize that these may be the cause:  

You feel better, appetite improves and therefore, you eat more

You are more active and appetite is increased so you eat more

Metabolism may be affected in a negative way

Not all anti-depressants cause weight gain and not all anti-depressants treat the same symptoms.  Work closely with your doctor to try to find one that controls symptoms without the weight gain.   

Neurochemistry in depression is extremely complex and not the same for everyone. 

If you are depressed, this is not the time to focus on weight loss. I would focus more on trying to NOT GAIN any weight.   

Here’s my suggestions on how nutrition may help you move out of a depressive state. 


One – Be mindful of WHY you are eating. 

When you want to eat just because you are feeling hopeless, pause.  This is where you are risk to gain weight.  What else can you do that will improve your mood?

Here’s a suggestion: Art. One study showed decreased cortisol levels after 45 minutes of drawing, painting, coloring or photography.  This makes you feel better and does not have the side effects of donuts. 

Two – Recognize sugary foods will not only make you gain weight but will also make it harder to move out of your depression. 

If you must, limit to one serving.  If you can, try alternatives like sweet grapes or watermelon.   

Three – Move daily – even if it is a 10 minute walk. 

You’ll burn calories but also it also has a positive impact on your cortisol levels.  If you can walk outside and get some fresh air and sunlight even better.  Both will decrease cortisol levels.

May is mental health awareness month.  If you or someone you love is struggling with depression, please seek medical attention if you have not done so already. 

If you want to see the full  YouTube video that accompanies this blog, click here. 

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