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.
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.
“Depressed people often wind up eating fast food or whatever they have on hand in their kitchen – such as their last box of cookies,” says Sudeepta Varma, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the NYU Langone Medical Center.
It’s also easy for people with depression to get into a rut of eating the same foods all the time. “It’s so hard for them to function that they’re looking for routine and structure. They may stop and get a bagel and cream cheese every morning and never try anything different,” Nolan says.
Another factor, Varma says, is that depressed people often have difficulties with concentration, memory, and making decisions. “This can make simple tasks seem overwhelming, so they might eat a bowl of the same type of cereal for three meals a day,” she says.
Experts say you should seek treatment for your depression before you try to change your eating habits. “Attempting to go on a diet, for example, can be frustrating and counterproductive if the depression hasn’t been addressed first,” Albers says.
If you’ve had depressive symptoms for more than two weeks and they’re interfering with your normal functioning, see your primary care doctor or a mental health professional. During the appointment, tell your doctor if there have been changes in your weight or appetite. The most effective treatment plan for depression typically includes therapy, antidepressant medication, or a combination of both.
“Once you start to feel better and the treatment kicks in, then you can work on the food choices you’re making and start changing your diet under the guidance of your doctor,” Varma says.
Avoiding Food Traps
As your depression begins to improve, the following strategies can help you eat healthier and sidestep food traps:
- Soothe your senses: “Find other ways to comfort your body besides food, such as taking a warm bath, wrapping yourself in a soft blanket, or sipping hot tea,” Albers suggests.
- Tune in to your hunger: When you think you feel hungry, Fain recommends pausing and asking yourself: am I really hungry or am I feeling something else? “You may find that what you’re really craving isn't a cookie or a bag of chips, but a heart-to-heart talk with a friend or a loved one,” she says.
- Eat a varied diet: Nutritional deficiencies can make depression worse. So focus on eating a variety of foods, including whole grains, vegetables, fruits, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products. Consider meeting with a nutritionist who can create simple, balanced meal plans for you.
- Boost your energy: Seek activities that give you energy, such as going for a walk, playing with your dog, or listening to music. “When you do something that brightens your outlook and improves your mood, you’ll be less likely to overeat and make poor food choices,” Fain says.