Can being overweight cause depression

‘Strongest evidence yet’ that being obese causes depression

The research, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, shows that the psychological impact of being overweight causes depression, rather than associated illnesses such as diabetes.

Researchers looked at UK Biobank data from more than 48,000 people with depression, comparing them with a control group of more than 290,000 people born between 1938 and 1971, who provided medical and genetic information.

Hospital data and self-reporting were used to determine whether people had depression.

Director of the Australian Centre for Precision Health, UniSA Professor Elina Hypponen, who co-led the study, said the team took a genomic approach to their research.

“We separated the psychological component of obesity from the impact of obesity-related health problems using genes associated with higher body mass index (BMI), but with lower risk of diseases like diabetes,” Prof Hypponen says.

“These genes were just as strongly associated with depression as those genes associated with higher BMI and diabetes. This suggests that being overweight causes depression both with and without related health issues — particularly in women”

At the other ends of the BMI spectrum, very thin men are more prone to depression that either men of normal weight or very thin women.

“The current global obesity epidemic is very concerning,” Prof Hypponen says. “Alongside depression, the two are estimated to cost the global community trillions of dollars each year.

“Our research shows that being overweight doesn’t just increase the risks of chronic diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease; it can also lead to depression,” Prof Hypponen says.

Being overweight likely to cause depression, even without health complications

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

A largescale genomic analysis has found the strongest evidence yet that being overweight causes depression, even in the absence of other health problems.

The research, jointly led by the University of Exeter and the University of South Australia, suggests that it is the psychological impact of being overweight that causes depression, rather than associated illnesses. This furthers understanding of the complex relationship between obesity and depression. While it has long been known that depression is more common in obesity, the research, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, is the first to conclude that higher body mass index (BMI) can cause depression in itself, even where no other health problems exist.

The team looked at UK Biobank data from more than 48,000 people with depression and compared them to more than 290,000 controls in the UK Biobank cohort of people born between 1938 and 1971, who have provided medical and genetic information. They used hospital admission data and self-reporting to determine whether people had depression.

The team used a genetic research approach to explore the causal link between the two conditions. The team separated out the psychological component of obesity from the impact of obesity related health problems, using genes associated with higher BMI but lower risk of diseases like diabetes. These genes were just as strongly associated with depression as those genes associated with higher BMI and diabetes. This suggests that higher BMI causes depression both with and without related health issues. This effect was stronger in women than in men.

Dr. Jess Tyrrell, of the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “Obesity and depression are both global health problems that have a major impact on lives and are costly to health services. We’ve long known there’s a link between the two, yet it’s unclear whether obesity causes depression or vice-versa, and also whether it’s being overweight in itself or the associated health problems that can cause depression. Our robust genetic analysis concludes that the psychological impact of being obese is likely to cause depression. This is important to help target efforts to reduce depression, which makes it much harder for people to adopt healthy lifestyle habits.”

The team tested their results in a second large-scale cohort, using data from the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium. They reached the same conclusion, verifying their results.

The full paper, entitled Using genetics to understand the causal influence of higher BMI on depression, is published in International Journal of Epidemiology.

Explore further

Behavioral risk factors for depression vary with age, study finds More information: Jessica Tyrrell et al. Using genetics to understand the causal influence of higher BMI on depression, International Journal of Epidemiology (2018). DOI: 10.1093/ije/dyy223 Journal information: International Journal of Epidemiology Provided by University of Exeter Citation: Being overweight likely to cause depression, even without health complications (2018, November 13) retrieved 2 February 2020 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-11-overweight-depression-health-complications.html This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Psychological Consequences Of Being Overweight

Psychological consequences of being overweight or obese can include lowered self-esteem and anxiety, and more serious disorders such as depression and eating disorders such as binge eating, bulimia and anorexia. The reasons for why this is so aren’t hard to fathom. Modern culture is singular in the way that it worships youthful slim, toned bodies. With rare exceptions, only thin, proportional bodies are considered sexy. Obese or overweight people are looked down upon. It’s easy to feel bad about one’s self, to become depressed or anxious or to to develop obsessions around eating control when one’s culture makes it clear that the way one appears is wholly undesirable.

One doesn’t have to be overweight to get into psychological trouble with eating, either. Eating is pleasurable, and because this is true, all manner of people (fat and thin both) end up using eating as a ready source of emotional comfort when they are feeling stressed out. It comes as no surprise that such stress-induced eating leads to weight gain, which in turn leads many people (especially women) to feel still worse about themselves, motivating still more stress-based eating and additional weight gain. All too often, stress-based comfort eating becomes a vicious cycle and downward spiral.

Loss Of Energy and Joy For Life

If the negative health and shame aspects of being overweight aren’t enough, overweight people also tend to have less energy than their normal weight peers. Because it takes them more effort than their peers to be active, they tend to gravitate towards low-activity lifestyles and become sedentary. An unfortunate circle develops wherein the less active people become the greater their risk of gaining still more weight, and the more weight people gain, the less likely they are to become more active. Life stresses seem more overwhelming as exercise (which could begin the process of reversing this downward spiral of decreasing energy levels) is avoided and a major opportunity for the reduction of muscle tension, stress and anxiety is lost. Over time, even ordinary tasks of daily life like going up a flight of stairs can lead to exhaustion and a sense of premature aging.

Effects of obesity and exercise: Is obesity a mental health issue? The Harvard Mental Health Letter investigates

Published: September, 2004

Not so long ago, it was commonly believed that overweight and obese people were compulsive eaters, anxious, depressed, under stress, or trying to compensate for deficiencies in their lives. But today, when almost everyone seems to be getting heavier and obesity has become a national issue, both experts and the public are dismissing the idea that weight gain is a personal emotional problem. The October issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter looks at the undefined relationship between mental health and obesity.

The American Psychiatric Association has never regarded overeating or excess weight as a psychiatric disorder, and most obese people do not qualify for a psychiatric diagnosis. Accordingly, most studies do not find a clear association between mental health and weight.

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Mind/body health

Obesity is one of the nation’s fastest-growing and most troubling health problems. Unless you act to address the emotions behind why you overeat, you could be facing long-term problems. If you have a very high body mass index (BMI) — that is, your weight is significantly more than what is generally considered healthy for your height — you may be increasing the risk of many serious health conditions, including hypertension, heart disease and stroke, Type 2 diabetes, gallbladder disease, chronic fatigue, asthma, sleep apnea and some forms of cancer.

For women, obesity can lead to problems in the reproductive system. And studies show that severe cases of obesity can reduce your life expectancy, particularly if you are a young adult.

The causes of obesity are rarely limited to genetic factors, prolonged overeating or a sedentary lifestyle. What we do and don’t do often results from how we think and feel. For example, feelings of sadness, anxiety or stress often lead people to eat more than usual. Unless you act to address these emotions, however, these short-term coping strategies can lead to long-term problems.

A mind-body interaction

Obesity is also frequently accompanied by depression and the two can trigger and influence each other.

Although women are slightly more at risk for having an unhealthy BMI than men, they are much more vulnerable to the obesity-depression cycle. In one study, obesity in women was associated with a 37 percent increase in major depression. There is also a strong relationship between women with a high BMI and more frequent thoughts of suicide.

Depression can both cause and result from stress, which, in turn, may cause you to change your eating and activity habits. Many people who have difficulty recovering from sudden or emotionally draining events (e.g., loss of a close friend or family member, relationship difficulties, losing a job or facing a serious medical problem) unknowingly begin eating too much of the wrong foods or forgoing exercise. Before long, these become habits and difficult to change.

Binge eating, a behavior associated with both obesity and other conditions such as anorexia nervosa, is also a symptom of depression. A study of obese people with binge eating problems found that 51 percent also had a history of major depression. Additional research shows that obese women with binge-eating disorder who experienced teasing about their appearance later developed body dissatisfaction and depression.

What you can do

Dealing with obesity and similar weight-control problems requires adopting new habits that foster a healthier lifestyle, but don’t attempt radical changes to your diet or activity patterns. You risk not only compounding what is already a precarious health situation, but also overlooking the core attitude and emotional issues that caused obesity in the first place.

Instead, consider a team approach that involves several qualified health professionals. Your physician will help you develop a safe plan for losing weight that includes both diet and exercise. A psychologist can help you with the emotional side of the equation-the stress, depression or experiences that caused you to gain weight.

Here are some other things to consider in helping you or someone you know take action against obesity:

  • Think about what you eat and why. Track your eating habits by writing down everything you eat, including time of day and amount of food. Also record what was going through your mind at the time. Were you sad or upset with something? Or, had you just finished a stressful experience and felt the need for “comfort food?”

  • Cut down on portions while eating the same foods. Along with making dieting feel less depriving, you’ll soon find that the smaller portions are just as satisfying. This will also give you a platform to safely curb your appetite even more.

  • Note that while treating obesity often helps decrease feelings of depression, weight loss is never successful if you remain burdened by stress and other negative feelings. You may have to work to resolve these issues first before beginning a weight-loss program.

  • Losing weight is always easier when you have the support of friends and family. Try to enlist the entire household in eating a healthier diet. Many hospitals and schools also sponsor support groups made up of people who offer each other valuable encouragement and support. Research shows that people who participate in such groups lose more weight than going it alone.

  • Use the “buddy system.” Ask a friend or family member to be “on-call” for moral support when you’re tempted to stray from your new lifestyle. Just be sure you’re not competing with this person to lose weight.

  • Don’t obsess over “bad days” when you can’t help eating more. This is often a problem for women who tend to be overly hard on themselves for losing discipline. Look at what thoughts or feelings caused you to eat more on a particular day, and how you can deal with them in ways other than binge eating. A psychologist can help you formulate an action plan for managing these uncomfortable feelings.

The American Psychological Association gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Sara Weiss, PhD, and Nancy Molitor, PhD, in developing this fact sheet.

Depression and Obesity

One in every 10 Americans deals with depression each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC); the same organization says that the United States is home to more than 70 million obese people. But how many of these Americans have both conditions: Depression and obesity?

Researchers have been puzzling over the apparent weight-mental health connection for years. There’s no question that obesity and depression are linked in both adolescents and adults. But does depression cause obesity, or does obesity prompt depression? Doctors are trying to get to the bottom of that relationship, so they can craft effective treatments for both conditions.

Here’s a look at the theories linking sadness and weight gain.

Obesity-Depression Links

Research has shown that there’s no clear, one-way connection between obesity and depression. Instead, studies have shown that the two tend to feed off each other in a vicious, self-destructive circle.

  • Obesity causes depression. Studies have shown that obese people are about 25 percent more likely to experience a mood disorder like depression compared with those who are not obese. Obesity can cause poor self-image, low self-esteem, and social isolation, all known contributors to depression. Those who are obese can also find themselves ostracized, stereotyped, and discriminated against. The extra weight carried around by obese people can result in chronic joint pain as well as serious diseases like diabetes and hypertension, all of which have been linked to depression.
  • Depression causes obesity. A study of adolescents in Cincinnati found that teenagers with symptoms of depression were more likely to become obese within the next year. The study also found that kids who were borderline obese and depressed became substantially obese over the following year. People experiencing depression are more likely to overeat or make poor food choices, avoid exercising, and become more sedentary. Researchers have found that depressed people with decreased levels of the hormone serotonin also have a tendency toward obesity — they tend to eat in an attempt to self-medicate and restore their serotonin levels to normal.
  • Depression and obesity share common risk factors. Some factors apparently can trigger both obesity and depression. Belonging to a lower socioeconomic class and not participating in physical activity increases risk for developing either condition.

Treating Obesity and Depression

As they attempt to understand the link between depression and obesity, doctors also are trying to figure out how to treat both conditions in a way that will produce overall good results.

  • Depression. Successfully treating depression can be a lot easier than successfully treating obesity, so doctors recommend that people with depressive symptoms — especially if they are adolescents — seek treatment as soon as possible. Treatment can include psychotherapy or antidepressants.
  • Obesity. A study of people who underwent bariatric surgery for their obesity found that as they shed pounds, they also shed their depression. A year after surgery, the subjects had experienced a 77 percent loss of excess body weight, and an accompanying 18 percent reduction in symptoms of depression. Younger people, women, and those who experienced greater weight-loss results were more likely to feel less depressed.

These results indicate that a team approach might be best for dealing with depression and obesity. Your family physician can help craft a plan of diet and exercise that will lead to healthy weight loss. You might want to bring in a nutritionist or personal trainer to help you better follow your physician’s weight-loss plan. At the same time, a psychologist or psychiatrist can help you deal with your feelings of depression and confront the stress, anxiety, or other triggers that are leading to your depression and obesity. Finally, you may also benefit from the use of antidepressants.

Depression and Obesity in the U.S. Adult Household Population, 2005–2010

NCHS Data Brief No. 167, October 2014

PDF Versionpdf icon (670 KB)

Laura A. Pratt, Ph.D.; and Debra J. Brody, M.P.H.

Key findings

Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, 2005–2010

  • Forty-three percent of adults with depression were obese, and adults with depression were more likely to be obese than adults without depression.
  • In every age group, women with depression were more likely to be obese than women without depression.
  • The prevalence of obesity was higher for non-Hispanic white women with depression compared with non-Hispanic white women without depression, a relationship that was not present in non-Hispanic black and Mexican-American women.
  • The proportion of adults with obesity rose as the severity of depressive symptoms increased.
  • Fifty-five percent of adults who were taking antidepressant medication, but still reported moderate to severe depressive symptoms, were obese.

In 2005–2010, 34.6% of U.S. adults aged 20 and over were obese and 7.2% had depression, based on depressive symptoms experienced in the past 2 weeks (1). Both obesity and depression are associated with many health risks, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and functional limitations (2–4). Studies have shown higher rates of obesity in persons with depression (5,6). This relationship may vary by sex (7). Almost 11% of adults take antidepressant medication (8) including persons who are responding well and persons who still have moderate to severe symptoms of depression. Use of some antidepressants is positively related to obesity (9). Understanding the relationship between depression (defined by moderate to severe symptoms) and antidepressant usage and obesity may inform treatment and prevention strategies for both conditions.

Keywords: NHANES, depressive symptoms, obese adults

Adults with depression were more likely to be obese than adults without depression.

Figure 1. Age-adjusted percentage of adults aged 20 and over who were obese, by sex and depression status: United States, 2005–2010
image icon

1Significantly different from no depression.
2Significantly different from women.
NOTES: Estimates were age-adjusted by the direct method to the 2000 U.S. census population using the age groups 20–39, 40–59, and 60 and over. Depression is defined as moderate to severe depressive symptoms. Access data table for Figure 1pdf icon.
SOURCE: CDC/NCHS, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2005–2010.

  • Forty-three percent of adults with depression were obese, while 33% of adults without depression were obese (Figure 1).
  • Among men, rates of obesity did not differ by depression status.
  • Women with depression were more likely to be obese than women without depression.
  • Among persons with depression, women were more likely to be obese than men.

In every age group, women with depression were more likely to be obese than women without depression.

  • Men aged 60 and over with depression were more likely to be obese than men of the same age without depression, but obesity rates did not differ by depression status for men under age 60 (Figure 2).
  • Among men with depression, those aged 60 and over were more likely to be obese than those aged 20–39. Obesity did not vary by age among women with depression.
  • Among men and women without depression, younger adults aged 20–39 were less likely to be obese than those aged 40 and over.

Figure 2. Percentage of adults aged 20 and over who were obese, by age, sex, and depression status: United States, 2005–2010

image icon

1Significantly lower than ages 40–59.
2Significantly lower than ages 60 and over.
3Significantly different from no depression.
NOTES: Depression is defined as moderate to severe depressive symptoms. Access data table for Figure 2pdf icon.
SOURCE: CDC/NCHS, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2005–2010.

The relationship between obesity and depression varied by race and ethnicity only among women.

  • Forty-five percent of non-Hispanic white women with depression were obese, while 32% of non-Hispanic white women who did not have depression were obese (Figure 3).
  • Among non-Hispanic black and Mexican-American men and women, rates of obesity did not differ by depression status.

Figure 3. Age-adjusted percentage of adults aged 20 and over who were obese, by sex, race/ethnicity, and depression status: United States, 2005–2010

image icon

1Significantly different from no depression.
NOTES: Estimates were age-adjusted by the direct method to the 2000 U.S. census population using the age groups 20–39, 40–59, and 60 and over. Depression is defined as moderate to severe depressive symptoms. Access data table for Figure 3pdf icon.
SOURCE: CDC/NCHS, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2005–2010.

The age-adjusted percentage of adults who were obese increased as depression severity increased.

  • Obesity was related to depression severity only among women (Figure 4).
  • One-half of women with severe depressive symptoms were obese compared with one-third of women with no depressive symptoms.
  • Women at any level of depressive symptom severity were more likely to be obese than women with no depressive symptoms.

Figure 4. Age-adjusted percentage of adults aged 20 and over who were obese, by sex and depression severity: United States, 2005–2010

image icon

1Statistically significant trend.
2Significantly different than other severity categories.
NOTES: Estimates were age-adjusted by the direct method to the 2000 U.S. census population using the age groups 20–39, 40–59, and 60 and over. Moderate and severe indicate depression, while mild indicates mild depressive symptoms, which are not included in the definition of depression. Access data table for Figure 4pdf icon.
SOURCE: CDC/NCHS, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2005–2010.

More than one-half of adults with moderate to severe depressive symptoms who were also taking antidepressant medication were obese.

  • Among adults who took antidepressant medication, of those with moderate or severe depressive symptoms, 55% were obese while 38% with mild or no depressive symptoms were obese (Figure 5).
  • Among adults not taking antidepressant medication, 39% of adults with moderate or severe depressive symptoms were obese compared with 33% of adults with mild or no depressive symptoms.
  • Adults who took antidepressant medication were more likely to be obese than those not taking antidepressants both among adults with moderate to severe depressive symptoms and adults with mild or no depressive symptoms.

Figure 5. Age-adjusted percentage of adults aged 20 and over who were obese, by depressive symptoms and use of antidepressants: United States, 2005–2010

image icon

1Significantly different from mild or no depressive symptoms.
2Significantly different from no antidepressants.
NOTES: Estimates were age-adjusted by the direct method to the 2000 U.S. census population using the age groups 20–39, 40–59, and 60 and over. Moderate to severe depressive symptoms indicate depression, while mild or no depressive symptoms indicate no depression. Access data table for Figure 5.pdf icon
SOURCE: CDC/NCHS, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2005–2010.

Summary

Forty-three percent of adults with depression were obese as compared with 33% of adults without depression. Women with depression were more likely to be obese than women without depression. The relationship was consistent across all age groups among women and was also seen in men aged 60 and over. Non-Hispanic white women with depression were more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white women without depression. This relationship was not seen in non-Hispanic black or Hispanic women or among men of any racial or ethnic background. As the severity of depression increased, the percentage of all adults and of women with obesity increased as well.

Both moderate to severe depressive symptoms and antidepressant use were associated with increased obesity. Moderate to severe depressive symptoms were associated with a higher rate of obesity both in persons who were taking antidepressant medication and those who were not, and antidepressant use was associated with a higher rate of obesity in persons with moderate to severe depressive symptoms and those with mild or no depressive symptoms. Of the four categories, the highest prevalence of obesity (54.6%) was found in persons who had moderate or severe depressive symptoms and took antidepressant medication.

In this study, it is not clear whether depression or obesity occurred first because they were both measured at the same time. Other studies have shown a bidirectional relationship, meaning obesity increases risk of depression and depression increases risk of obesity (10). Knowledge of these risks may help general medical practitioners and mental health professionals plan prevention and treatment.

Definitions

Obesity: Body mass index (BMI) is calculated as weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared. Obesity in adults is defined as BMI greater than or equal to 30.

Depression: Measured using the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ–9), a 9-item instrument that asks questions about the frequency of symptoms of depression over the past 2 weeks (11). In the PHQ–9, response categories “not at all,” “several days,” “more than half the days,” and “nearly every day” are given a score ranging from 0 (not at all) to 3 (nearly every day). A total score is calculated ranging from 0 to 27. Depression was defined as a PHQ–9 score of 10 or higher, a cut point that has been well validated and is commonly used in clinical studies that measure depression (11). No depression was defined as a PHQ–9 score of 0–9.

PHQ–9 is based on the diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Major depression includes mood symptoms such as feelings of sadness or irritability; loss of interest in usual activities; inability to experience pleasure; feelings of guilt or worthlessness; and thoughts of death or suicide; cognitive symptoms such as inability to concentrate and difficulty making decisions; and physical symptoms such as fatigue, lack of energy, feeling restless or slowed down, and changes in sleep, appetite, and activity levels (12).

Depression severity: Refers to the severity of depressive symptoms. The following four severity categories were defined based on the total score from the PHQ–9 (13): None or minimal (0–4), Mild (5–9), Moderate (10–14), and Severe (15 or more).

These depression severity categories are used in Figures 4 and 5. In Figures 1–3, none or minimal and mild depressive symptoms (PHQ–9 scores of 0–9) correspond to “no depression,” while moderate and severe depressive symptoms (scores of 10 or more) correspond to “depression.” Persons who have been diagnosed with depression, but who are not experiencing moderate or severe symptoms due to medication use or other factors, are not defined as having depression in this analysis.

Antidepressant medication: Prescription drugs were classified based on the three-level nested therapeutic classification scheme of Cerner Multum’s Lexicon (13). Antidepressants were identified using the second level of drug categorical codes, specifically code 249.

Data sources and methods

NHANES is a continuous survey conducted to assess the health and nutrition of the American people. The survey is designed to be nationally representative of the U.S. civilian noninstitutionalized population. Survey participants complete a household interview and visit a mobile examination center (MEC) for a physical examination and private interview.

During the household interview, survey participants were asked if they had taken a prescription drug in the past month. Those who answered “yes” were asked to show the interviewer the medication containers of all prescription drugs. Height and weight, used to calculate BMI, were measured during the MEC physical examination. The questions on depression were asked in the private interview in the MEC.

NHANES sample examination weights, which account for the differential probabilities of selection, nonresponse, and noncoverage, were used for all analyses. Standard errors of the percentages were estimated using Taylor series linearization, a method that incorporates the sample design and weights.

Prevalence estimates for the total adult population were age-adjusted using the direct method to the 2000 U.S. census population using the age groups 20–39, 40–59, and 60 and over. Differences between groups were tested using a univariate t statistic at the p < 0.05 significance level. All differences reported are statistically significant unless otherwise indicated. No adjustments were made for multiple comparisons. A test for trends was done to evaluate changes in the estimates by depression severity (Figure 3). Statistical analyses were conducted using the SAS system for Windows, release 9.3 (SAS Institute Inc., Cary, N.C.) and SUDAAN, release 10.0 (RTI International, Research Triangle Park, N.C.).

About the authors

Laura A. Pratt is with CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, Office of Analysis and Epidemiology. Debra J. Brody is with CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, Division of Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys.

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Suggested citation

Pratt LA, Brody DJ. Depression and obesity in the U.S. adult household population, 2005–2010. NCHS data brief, no 167. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2014.

Copyright information

All material appearing in this report is in the public domain and may be reproduced or copied without permission; citation as to source, however, is appreciated.

National Center for Health Statistics

Charles J. Rothwell, M.S., M.B.A., Director
Jennifer H. Madans, Ph.D., Associate Director for Science

Office of Analysis and Epidemiology

Irma E. Arispe, Ph.D., Director

Division of Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys

Kathryn S. Porter, M.D., M.S., Director

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