What You Need to Know

  • A 2011 study looked into whether, over time, depressive symptoms were associated with a change in body mass index (BMI) or, alternatively, whether a change in BMI was associated with a change in depressive symptoms.
  • Researchers found that obesity and depression are bidirectional, meaning that one affects the other and vice-versa.

What Did the Study Show?

In 2011, Belinda L. Needham and her colleagues published “Trajectories of Change in Obesity and Symptoms of Depression: The CARDIA Study” in the American Journal of Public Health.

The study found that the symptoms of depression likely play a role in the development of health problems, like cardiovascular disease, due to their “association with increased weight over time.” It also determined that the relationship between obesity and depression is bidirectional. According to Kaiser Health News, this means that “being obese or overweight ups the odds of depression, and vice versa.”

Though the reason for the bidirectionality of the two issues is still unclear, over time, research has shown that the two are linked. For example, data from the 2005-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys found that “Forty-three percent of adults with depression were obese, and adults with depression were more likely to be obese than adults without depression.”  

The surveys also noted that “the proportion of adults with obesity rose as the severity of depressive symptoms increased.” According to Healthline, an estimated 350 million people worldwide currently have depression. The surveys also found that women diagnosed with depression were more likely to be obese than women who did not struggle with the disorder.

“For many people, obesity and the associated medical issues can contribute to heightened anxiety, low confidence, low energy and low self-esteem – all of which are also present in depression,” said Aparna Iyer, a holistic therapist and psychiatrist. She added that obesity can come with physical health problems such as cardiac conditions.

What Can Be Done About the Link Between Obesity and Depression?

Iyer said that the way she explains it to her patients is by telling them “when you have interconnected issues, it’s always best to address both. We might not be able to address both equally and at the same time, but at some point, we will need to try our best to tackle both in order to really move forward.”

However, Iyer said she’d treat the depression first because “once the depression started to improve, a person’s energy levels, motivation, and feelings of optimism about creating plans to improve the obesity would also likely improve.” Therefore, managing the obesity would become much easier.

For those struggling with both obesity and depression, Iyer recommended finding a good therapist with whom the client can create “a safe, comfortable space” to explore their current situation. She added that the therapist can then work with the client to address their depression “as well as create a plan around addressing the obesity.”

Iyer also said that both therapy and exercise have been known to be beneficial for depression. She explained that, in some cases, psychotropic medications can be helpful as well.

“Not all people who are depressed and obese need to be on psychotropic medications, but some people greatly benefit from an added anti-depressant to manage their depressive symptoms.”