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Feelings of depression linked to short-term weight gain, study finds – National

As the winter blues set in for many in Canada, experts say feelings of depression can lead people to gain weight, with new research suggesting that the risk of weight increases in the short term are higher in people who are already obese.

A study by University of Cambridge scientists published in the PLOS ONE journal Wednesday found that an increase in depressive symptoms was associated with an increase in weight one month later.

However, this was only evident in people who were overweight, having a BMI of 25-29.9, or obese, with a BMI higher than 30.0.

Subsequent weight gain was not shown in those with a healthy BMI lower than 25.

“The higher your BMI, the more vulnerable you are to weight gain from having an increase in depressive symptoms,” said Julia Mueller, study author and researcher in behavioural weight management at the University of Cambridge.

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This could be due to several factors such eating habits, exercise, sleeping patterns and metabolic changes that can all be affected by negative emotions, Mueller said in an interview with Global News Wednesday.


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The study was conducted between August 2020 and April 2021 during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken a mental toll on people around the world.

It included more than 2,100 adults aged 44 to 70 years in the United Kingdom who were asked to complete monthly questionnaires for nine months about their mental health and body weight via an online app.

Overall, researchers found that an increase of one unit in depressive symptoms was associated with a subsequent increase in weight of 45 grams. For individuals with overweight, the weight gain was 52 grams and 71 grams for those with obesity.

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Mueller said this might seem like a small increase, but weight can add up over time.

“We know from previous research that even small increases in weight can lead to larger weight gains over the long term, so I think it’s still an issue of concern.”


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What could be behind the link?

There is growing research dating back decades looking at the link between depression and obesity.

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Roger McIntyre, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto, said this latest Cambridge study adds to a “compelling, large, and international database that has documented the association between depressive symptoms as well as the diagnosis of major depression and obesity.”


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Mueller also said “there is very convincing evidence that there is an association”, adding that depressive symptoms can lead to weight gain and weight gain can also increase depressive symptoms.

But, why does that happen?

“What the literature is suggesting is that often in response to negative emotions, people tend to consume more energy-dense foods, more sugary snacks, more processed, more fatty foods,” Mueller said. And when people are feeling down, she added, it’s also more difficult to find the motivation to exercise. Moreover, sleep can get disrupted and when a person is sleeping poorly that increases their appetite.


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How well one copes with negative emotions and genetic differences can possibly explain why obesity and being overweight can make people more vulnerable to weight gain following an increase in depressive symptoms, Mueller said.

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“I think it’s a combination of genes and early life experiences that probably makes the difference,” she explained.

McIntyre said there is an overlap between depression and obesity because of socio-economic determinants, psychological factors as well as the neurobiology of both conditions.

“So not only do these conditions overlap at the population-clinical level and overlap at the causation level, but some of the therapeutics are beginning to overlap as well,” he added.

When seeing patients, Mueller advised that health-care providers should not only look for signs of clinical depression, but monitor any changes in people’s mental well-being over time.

On a personal level, people should also pay close attention to their own mental health.

“If you’re feeling worse than you usually do, that’s the thing to pay attention to and to look out for and maybe think about what can you do in terms of self-care and what other coping mechanisms could you consider,” Mueller said.

How to manage depressive feelings

Exercise and good diet can help people deal with depression along with mental health support plans in coordination with their healthcare provider, experts say.

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According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, “physical fitness is very important to people with depression”.

“This can be very hard because depression zaps your energy and limits motivation and drive, but your body has to work as effectively as possible in order to counter the effects of depression,” PHAC says on its website. 

A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine last year concluded that physical activity is “highly beneficial” for improving symptoms of depression and anxiety compared with usual care across all populations.

Eating healthy food, taking vitamins and supplements for balance can also be helpful, PHAC advises.

If the gloomy winter weather is getting you down, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) recommends stepping outside during the day or keeping your curtains open to let the daylight boost your mood.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.

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