When you’re struggling with depression, your eating habits often suffer. Some people overeat and gain weight, turning to food to lift their mood. Others find they’re too exhausted to prepare balanced meals or that they’ve lost their appetite.
"Whether you're overeating or not eating enough, you may be using food to feel better or to cope with difficult feelings," says Susan Albers, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Wooster, Ohio and author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food.
When Scott Davis, 38, was suffering from major depression, he confided in his sister-law. “One day I found myself talking to her about all my fears about the depression, and the medication and therapy I was beginning. I was overcome with anxiety about my future, and she said, ‘I’ve been there.’ Those three words lifted all the pain I was feeling.”
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Albers tells WebMD that people often get trapped in a cycle of feeling trapped and hopeless about life and their poor eating habits, which causes them to become even more depressed. “It’s important to connect with other people so you don't become too isolated. Talking with friends and a therapist can provide support to help you break out of that cycle,” she says.
Here are three common ways clinical depression can impact your eating patterns and tips on how to start making healthier choices with the help of your doctor or therapist:
1. Using Food for Comfort.
“People with depression often use food to self-medicate,” says Jean Fain, LICSW, MSW, a licensed psychotherapist in Concord, Mass., and author of The Self-Compassion Diet: A Step-by-Step Program to Lose Weight with Loving-Kindness. “They may eat to improve or avoid negative or uncomfortable feelings, like sadness, shame, and self-loathing.”
Many people crave carbohydrates or soothing comfort foods, such as ice cream and cake, when they’re depressed. One reason for this is that foods high in carbs and sugar increase levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that elevates mood.
“In the short term, eating foods high in sugar and fat may make you feel calmer and cared for,” Fain says. “But in the long term, a steady diet of comfort foods can lead to weight gain and increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other serious health problems.”
2. Eating Too Little
Many people find their appetite decreases when they’re feeling low. In some cases, they end up unintentionally losing weight. “They have less desire for food and they start skipping meals – often, they’re sleeping through meals,” says Marjorie Nolan, MS, RD, a registered dietitian in New York and a national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Albers says that you may feel like you don’t have the motivation or energy to eat when you’re depressed. Also, stress can play a role in reducing your appetite. “Food isn’t as appealing when you’re anxious, worried, or feel hopeless,” she says.
But not eating enough can make you more irritable and sensitive, which can worsen your depression.
3. Eating Whatever Is Easily Available
Shopping for and preparing healthy meals can seem daunting when you’re depressed and lacking energy. As a result, you may reach for foods that are convenient but that aren’t particularly nutritious and you may not get enough variety in your diet.