If you live with depression and your weight has changed, you’re not alone. It’s a common occurrence and there are ways to cope.
Depression can impact your life in more ways than one, including your relationship with your body.
Perhaps the thought of food makes you feel nauseated, so you prefer to eat less. Or maybe you’re exhausted and don’t feel motivated to work out quite like you used to.
All of this is understandable.
While depression and your weight can be challenging to manage at the same time, it’s not impossible. There is hope for treatment with professional support and a few realistic strategies — one step at a time.
Depression can cause weight changes, but it’s not the same for everyone, says Dr. Roberta Ballard, a clinical psychologist in Marietta, Georgia.
“Some people lose their appetite when they [experience a depressive episode] and lose a lot of weight. Other people experience an increase in their appetite …,” she explains. “This can be due to physical changes related to depression that suppress your satiety signals.”
Appetite changes are a formal symptom of major depressive disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5).
A 2019 study notes that several factors may contribute to weight changes, including:
- change in eating habits
- increased inflammation
- reduced physical activity
- challenges adhering to lifestyle recommendations
In addition, research from 2018 shows that depression and challenges with executive functioning (such as impulse control) may lead to a higher BMI and increased body fat.
This could, in part, help explain the link between depression and eating disorders.
When you gain weight, it could make your existing depression feel worse, reinforcing a tricky cycle, says Lena Suarez-Angelino, a licensed clinical social worker in Woodbridge, New Jersey.
“Those that experience changes in weight may hear comments from others about their appearance,” she explains. “Additionally, negative self-talk, body dysmorphia, and poor body image increase as a result of weight changes, which then can cause or contribute to feelings of depression.”
A 2019 study suggests that the social stigma attached to weight gain may increase feelings of anxiety and depression in young adults, specifically females.
The cited medications included:
- aripiprazole (Abilify)
- clozapine (Clozaril)
- haloperidol (Haldol)
- olanzapine (Zyprexa)
- quetiapine (Seroquel)
- risperidone (Risperdal)
- trifluoperazine (Stelazine)
For some people, depression can make it more difficult to source the motivation for physical activity or follow a balanced diet, preventing weight loss.
Some reasons may include:
- difficulty with planning
- lack of motivation
- sense of hopelessness
- feeling unworthy (“so why change?”)
Another factor could be anhedonia, which is the loss of pleasure in things that you normally enjoy doing, says Sierra Dator, a licensed clinical social worker in Petaluma, California.
“For many people, exercise and cooking healthy meals are activities that bring them joy,” she says. “However, when a depressive episode [happens], you may lose interest in these healthy activities.”
You may also have adopted new coping mechanisms that impact your weight, she adds.
“Grabbing takeout for most meals, drinking alcohol in excess, smoking [cannabis] (leading to food cravings), binge eating, and eating high carbohydrate and sugary foods to self-soothe are all common ways people with depression may cope,” she says.
Weight gain or weight loss isn’t something to feel ashamed about. You’re doing the very best you can with the tools that you have.
At the same time, if you want to manage your weight for your own personal reasons (not just because of outside pressure), that’s OK.
Several actionable tips may help you manage your weight while living with depression.
“You may find it helpful to incorporate gentle movement to honor your body,” says Suarez-Angelino, emphasis on the word “honor.”
“Taking actionable steps that are not based on self-hate, or out of punishment, can help ease the symptoms of depression and help reframe the overall thought process surrounding your view of yourself,” she explains.
It may be good to set a timer and start small — 5 minutes if you have to and build from there. Research from 2019 shows that a regular exercise habit can provide both an energy and mood boost, thanks to a rush of neurotransmitters like endorphins and dopamine.
Some examples may include:
- walking in nature
- bike riding
- yoga class with a friend
Try to buddy up
Having an accountability partner may help you manage your weight, says Dator.
“For example, you and a friend texting each other every day after you did some movement activity can help you stay on track,” she says. “When you start to care for yourself in small manageable steps, those steps build on one another, eventually leading you to more health and wellness.”
Find (other) things you enjoy
For those who eat comfort foods in excess to cope with symptoms of depression, you may find it helpful to expand your repertoire of pleasurable experiences, says Ballard.
“This is important regardless of any weight concerns; it’s important to experience pleasure,” she says. “A hot bath, sitting outside in nature, listening to music, working on a craft or hobby — these are all examples of things I suggest clients try to soothe themselves when they’re not hungry.”
Mindfulness is the act of bringing your attention to the present moment. This may help you (gently) become aware of habits that could be contributing to your weight changes.
Some useful mindfulness-based activities may include:
Work with a therapist
A therapist can offer a comforting space to process your feelings about your body and teach you some tools to help you cope. You may find it helpful to use our search tools to find a therapist near you, particularly one specializing in body image.
Reach out for support
You don’t have to do this alone. The more people you have on your “team” to manage depression, the better you may feel. Perhaps try to find a doctor or dietician familiar with the health at every size principle or who takes a weight-neutral approach.
Depression is known to cause weight changes.
Some people may lose weight due to a loss of appetite. Others gain weight due to increased appetite and reduced physical activity. Antidepressant medications can cause weight changes as well.
To manage your weight, you may find it helpful to incorporate gentle exercise, notice your habits with mindfulness activities, work with a therapist or dietician, or all of the above.
No matter where you’re at right now, try to practice radical acceptance of your body and all it does for you. At whatever size, you are wonderful and worthy.