If you know what to look for, you can probably spot the signs of depression and eating-related issues. Your daughter, who used to run to the playground after school, now prefers to sit in front of the television with her hand in a bowl of potato chips. Your son, a former soccer player, gorges on soda and cheese curls before burrowing into his room behind a closed door, playing video games until suppertime.
Or maybe friends don't call as they used to, and your child seems to go around the house with worried, downcast eyes. Yet when you ask if something's wrong, you get a monotonous, "I'm fine."
If a scene like this seems familiar, it may be time to take action. Overeating can be a symptom of depression. And being overweight can cause child depression if weight leads to feelings of loneliness, isolation, or poor self-esteem. But parents can help break the chain. Here's how to recognize the signs of child depression in overweight children and what you can do to help.
The Depression-Eating Link in Children
Nearly one in three American children is overweight or obese, more than triple the number in 1980. Reports of childhood depression have also increased, and the two problems are often related. The connection between them is not always obvious, but experts say that parents need to pay attention if their children's unhealthy eating habits seem tied to sadder moods or depression.
"The relationship between obesity and depression goes in many different directions," psychiatrist Myrna Weissman, MD, tells WebMD. In a study Weissman and her colleagues at Columbia University published in 2001, depressed children were more likely than other kids to become obese adults. "It's very easy in our culture to get overweight," Weissman says. "And if you are depressed, you may eat to compensate."
Feelings of emptiness -- caused by depression or weight -- can make children want to fill up on carbohydrates and chocolates. These stimulate the release of chemicals that can make them feel better.
Sometimes, physical ailments such as anemia and thyroid conditions can cause depression. And some depression medications can cause weight gain.
Common Ground Between Depression and Obesity
While it can be more difficult to diagnose child depression than depression in adults, a survey of more than 1,500 9- to 10-year-olds found that 20% of those who were obese often felt sad, compared to only 8% of their healthy-weight peers.
Depression and obesity have many shared symptoms, including sleep problems, sedentary behavior, and unhealthy attitudes toward eating.
A 2006 study of 400 depressed teenagers showed that, on average, it took them longer to get to sleep than other teens. Obese children also have sleep issues. They are more likely to suffer from sleep apnea -- a serious condition marked by lapses in breathing during sleep. And they're more likely to feel sleepy during the day. That can be harmful because sleepiness can make you hungry, so poor sleep can aggravate both depression and obesity.