Obesity and depression are linked in both obvious and unexpected ways, but you can take steps to simultaneously address both conditions.
If you are overweight and depressed, you may have been told to go on a diet, exercise more, and take an antidepressant medication.
There’s a good reason why this kind of advice is usually not helpful — there’s no single cause of either depression or obesity.
Both of them are complex disorders with multiple contributing factors.
And they are linked in some surprising ways.
Let’s examine some of these lesser-known links between obesity and depression.
Both Obesity and Depression Are on the Rise: Is This a Coincidence?
Research suggests that lifetime depression risks are higher than ever. (1)
Globally, 300 million people are estimated to suffer from depression. (2)
Millennials face a 25% chance of experiencing depression in their lifetime. (3)
These rates are unparalleled in modern history, and there has been a steep increase in depression from one generation to the next.
Obesity is also at epidemic levels, with younger generations more at-risk than their predecessors. (4)
Some countries are seeing obesity rates of 20-35% of the total population and the number of overweight people can be as high as 70%!
There’s a growing body of evidence that the simultaneous increase in the prevalence of these two disorders is not a coincidence.
Before we take a look at the links between obesity and depression, let’s be clear on what obesity means.
According to Harvard Medical School, the most basic definition of obesity is having too much body fat. (5)
The most common and simple measure of overweight status in use today is body mass index or BMI.
BMI is simply a ratio of height to weight.
Obesity is commonly defined as having a BMI of 30 or greater, while a BMI of 25-29 is considered overweight.
If you know your height and weight, you can use the chart below to determine your BMI.
The use of BMI has come under attack because it doesn’t consider individual differences, but it is useful for measuring population-wide trends in body weight and body fat.
There’s no major difference between being overweight and obese; the negative effects are the same, just to different degrees.
Excess body fat can contribute to a variety of mental and physical health problems, including depression.
Obesity, in fact, is a contributing factor in eight of the top ten “natural” causes of death. (6)
One of the biggest problems in dealing with obesity and depression is that they share a cause-and-effect relationship with one another, leading to a negative feedback loop of weight gain and emotional distress. (7)
This means that an individual who is or becomes obese and has or develops a depressive disorder is more likely to lean on their poor relationship with food to comfort themselves.
It’s not difficult to see how depression, obesity, and comfort eating interact in the big picture, but let’s take a look at some of the less obvious ways that obesity and depression feed each other.
Chronic stress is characterized by elevated cortisol levels due to your response to your environment.
This might include work stress, hectic family schedules, or many other forms of physical or emotional hardship.
Chronically high cortisol levels put you at risk for a long list of both physical and mental maladies, including depression and obesity. (8)
Visceral fat, the kind that accumulates around your middle, isn’t biochemically inert — it fuels inflammation.
Chronic inflammation puts you at greater risk for mood disorders, diabetes, and heart disease. (9)
It also makes it harder for you to lose weight. (10)
As for brain health, many experts now favor the theory that depression is a result of chronic brain inflammation rather than an imbalance in brain chemistry.
Obesity is usually characterized by the excessive consumption of calories and poor exercise habits.
These lifestyle traits also happen to be exacerbating risk factors for depression.
Getting regular physical exercise can alleviate chronic stress, improve self-esteem, and attenuate a range of mental health problems from depression to Alzheimer’s. (11)
Exercise temporarily improves your mood by releasing endorphins, and, in the long term, improves your resilience to stress.
A review of studies confirms a strong correlation between a sedentary lifestyle and depression. (12)
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People who are obese almost invariably eat too many calorie-dense, low-nutrient foods.
A poor diet like this also contributes to mood disorders like depression.
Here’s a very brief summary of important macro and micronutrients and how they impact obesity and/or depression.
Healthy fats form a major structural component of brain cells.
Omega-3 fats in particular are essential for a healthy, optimally functioning brain.
These are the kind found in oily fish like salmon or in fish oil supplements.
Consuming a diet low in these kinds of fats puts you at risk for depression. (13)
Proteins form the building blocks of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.
Among the many functions neurotransmitters perform is the regulation of your mood and your food cravings.
Vitamins and minerals, found primarily in unprocessed plant foods, are tied to reductions in both obesity and depression.
Plant foods loaded with fiber provide satiety to keep you from overeating.
Lack of Restful Sleep
Obesity contributes to the onset of depression through the reduction of sleep quality, especially in those with sleep apnea. (16)
Sleep is the time for both the body and the brain to rest, heal, and recover from stress.
Obesity places huge stress on the organs, with visceral fat placing stress on the lungs and lowering the possibility of restful sleep.
The impact of sleep (for good or bad) on your stress and mood can’t be overstated.
Getting adequate restful sleep is an easy way to stabilize mental health and avoid chronic mental health problems.
Lack of Vitamin D and Sunlight
Vitamin D is a critical vitamin for mental health, but it’s one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world today.
You can get a little vitamin D from the food you eat, but sunlight is by far the main source of vitamin D.
Learn more —
The Link Between Vitamin D and Depression
The link between vitamin D and depression is well-known.
Research confirms that obesity increases the risk for both vitamin D deficiency and depression. (17)
Body fat plays important roles in the regulation of hormones and metabolism. (18)
Estrogen imbalance doesn’t affect just women.
Concurrent Health Conditions
Obesity contributes to many common health problems which, in turn, often contribute to depression.
Diabetes is one of the most common diseases due to the prevalence of obesity. (22)
Those with excessive body fat and poor eating habits risk insulin resistance and a host of poor health markers, including depression. (23)
High blood pressure is another health concern made worse by both obesity and stress. (24)
Hypertension, in turn, reduces both stress tolerance and the health benefits of exercise.
Both diabetes and hypertension are examples of health conditions that exemplify the complex interaction between obesity, stress, and depression. (25)
Not all factors that contribute to obesity and depression are physical — some are psychological.
Self-concept, or self-image, is defined as the mental image one has of oneself and one’s strengths, weaknesses, and status.
Those with better self-concept, who consider themselves to be valuable, competent and cherished, are less likely to be depressed or obese. (26)
Another psychological contributor to depression is unfavorably comparing yourself to others.
We naturally compare ourselves to those around us and negative comparisons with those who are fitter, more attractive, happier, or more successful can be deeply upsetting and stressful.
Lower social status is linked to reduced serotonin levels, the brain chemical whose deficiency is most closely associated with depression. (29)
Feeling that you are on the bottom of the social ladder can lead to insecurity and low self-esteem, thereby contributing to depression. (30)
You may be starting to realize that a lifestyle tune-up is in order!
Here’s a short checklist of lifestyle adjustments to break the bonds that link depression and obesity:
- Chronic stress can make you both depressed and fat. Take active measures to minimize stress.
- Stop eating processed foods. Eat a nutrient-dense, “real food” diet with an emphasis on fresh vegetables and fruit and foods that contain healthy fats. You can’t go wrong following the Mediterranean diet, which is widely considered the healthiest diet of all.
- Move your body. You don’t have to exercise strenuously. Taking walks or doing yoga are two top exercises for reducing stress and clearing your mind.
- Sleep. Getting adequate restful sleep is essential for mental health and for controlling your weight.
- Get a physical checkup. Ask your doctor to check your vitamin D and hormone levels. Rule out any other health conditions that might be contributing to your weight gain or depression.
- Take active steps to control your negative self-talk. If you can’t do it on your own, consider seeking professional help.
Learn more —
Use our search function to find in-depth articles on stress reduction, healthy eating and exercise, managing insomnia and negative self-talk, and other topics related to obesity and depression.
Obesity and Depression: The Bottom Line
There are a surprising number of ways that obesity and depression are linked to and contribute to one another.
The interconnected causes and effects of overeating, stress, and loss of self-esteem are obvious.
But there are subtle and unexpected linkages between obesity and depression such as chronic inflammation, nutrient deficiency, and biochemical imbalances.
The positive side of these interrelationships is that any steps you take to help one condition also helps the other.
The lifestyle changes outlined above can turn a negative feedback loop between obesity and depression into a positive one!
About the author
Amanda Roberts is one of the authors behind Nutrition Inspector. She writes health, nutrition and fitness articles to help people live a healthier lifestyle. Follow her on Facebook at Nutrition Inspector.