If you have ever found yourself feeling depressed and eating certain foods that temporarily improve your mood, you are not alone. Of course, there is nothing wrong with occasionally indulging in a package of your favorite cookies or bag of chips because you had a bad week. But overeating more than occasionally may be a sign of depression that requires professional treatment….
Symptoms of Depressive Eating: When Overeating Is not an Eating Disorder
The terms “emotional eating” and “depressive eating” are sometimes used to refer to the same thing. The main difference between the two involves how much a person eats at one time.
In between binge-eating episodes, people who binge-eat typically consume their food normally. For example, they might have breakfast, lunch, an afternoon snack and dinner like most of us do. But they also feel compelled to eat enormous amounts of food periodically and during these episodes cannot control how much they eat or what they eat.
Depressed eating episodes occur more frequently than binge eating episodes. Although they might share similar underlying mental health problems with those who binge-eat, depressed eaters reach for “comfort food” several times a day. Instead of hunger causing them to eat, depressed eaters have learned from previous eating habits that consuming doughnuts, macaroni and cheese or ice cream makes them feel less depressed.
Can Depression Cause Overeating?
Yes, depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses can compel a person to eat when they are not hungry. But why does depression and anxiety make you want to eat? Research suggests one reason we turn to comfort food when we feel depressed may have something to do with “scent-evoked nostalgia.”
According to a study published in Memory, “just smelling comfort food evokes memories of happier days, usually in childhood, and makes people feel more positive and optimistic.” Consequently, if the smell of certain foods soothes our anxiety, it’s likely we’ll keep turning to those foods for comfort.
Another reason why we feel better emotionally after eating comfort foods has to do with the release of endorphins and insulin. Endorphins are hormones that induce a natural sense of euphoria. Anything that causes pain, stress, happiness or excitement will flood the bloodstream with endorphins.
Like endorphins, insulin is a naturally produced hormone. Insulin controls how cells store and use glucose (blood sugar) for energy. When you eat a candy bar, your blood sugar surges, giving cells a boost of energy that also helps elevate mood.
Depression Overeating and Sugar Addiction
Clinical evidence for sugar being addictive exists in both human and animal studies. Excessive consumption of sugar acts on the brain’s reward pathway similar to the way opioids and stimulants do. While eating one piece of cake won’t get you addicted to sugar, eating four or five pieces of cake every day can cause the brain to release massive amounts of dopamine, acetylcholine and other chemicals associated with substance addiction.
When a depressed person eats a lot of sugary foods every day, they may have withdrawal symptoms if they try to stop eating sugar. Their depression and anxiety may worsen, leading them to resume depressive eating again. There is also the problem of eating unhealthy foods and nutritional deficiencies that could contribute to the onset of depression.
In fact, people with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses often have one or more nutritional deficiencies in common. Specifically, individuals with a mental illness may lack B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, amino acids and other nutrients that are needed to make neurotransmitters. Consequently, when serotonin, dopamine and GABA levels are too low, there is a higher potential for developing a mental illness.
Sugary, processed foods contain virtually no vitamins or minerals. Instead, a typical bakery item provides only sugar, fat, cholesterol, salt and a minimum amount of protein. So, regardless of whether a person’s depression came first or being overweight led to their depression, it is undeniable that what you eat has a big impact on your mental health.
Which Comes First: Depression or Overeating?
Research into the question of whether depression causes overeating or overeating causes depression has revealed mixed results. Some studies show a strong correlation between being overweight first and then developing depression. They also suggest that the risk of having mild or severe depression does not depend on how overweight a person may be. In other words, one individual who is 50 pounds overweight may not be as depressed as another person who is only 10 pounds overweight. The reason for this discrepancy is likely due to biopsychosocial factors such as genetics, personality and family environment.
The neurobiological theory states that depression precedes overeating. Certain parts of the brain involved in depression are also involved in how we respond to food and hunger. Imaging scans indicate that depressed individuals have functional and cellular differences in these brain areas that non-depressed individuals do not have.
However, neither theory explains why some depressed people undereat instead of overeat. New research suggests that depressed individuals who overeat experience hyperactivation within the brain’s mesocorticolimbic reward circuitry. Alternately, depressed people who lose their appetite experience reduced activity (hypoactivation) in brain areas that monitor the overall physiological state of the body. It could be that differences in appetite among individuals with major depression primarily involve genetics and brain architecture.
How to Stop Depression and Anxiety Eating
People who overeat because of depression may benefit from professional treatment. If they are living with major depressive disorder, they may need inpatient rehab that can teach them self-help techniques for managing mood and mood-related behaviors. Psychotherapy and medications to stabilize mood are often important components of treatment as well.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) works well to help people understood how negative thought patterns have such a powerful influence on their actions. Once a CBT counselor shows someone how to break the cycle between overeating and depression, that person can begin making healthy changes to the way they think about themselves, the world and their eating habits.
Depression treatment programs supported by CBT are based on the idea that negative thoughts generate negative feelings and depression. Counselors specializing in CBT attempt to train individuals to recognize and stop false beliefs about themselves and others before these thoughts threaten their sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem. Cognitive distortions affecting depressed individuals include:
- Mentally concentrating on all the “bad” things in one’s life and neglecting to focus on the positive things
- Jumping to conclusions – assuming the worst when no evidence exists for such an assumption
- Minimization and magnification – exaggerating negative events while downplaying favorable ones
- Using emotional reasoning instead of objective reasoning – letting emotions get the best of you
- Personalization – feeling like everything is your fault even though it is probably out of your control
- Should, could, would statements – obsessing over past mistakes when it does no good to do so
FHE has depression treatment programs designed to address the specific psychological and physical needs of those seeking mental health treatment. Call us today at 1-833-800-0502 to learn more about FHE’s inpatient and outpatient programs for depression.