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Why Do I Overeat When I Feel Depressed?

Who hasn’t felt like a glutton after Thanksgiving dinner? You’ve just stuffed your stomach with turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie galore. And the weeks following Thanksgiving aren’t much better. Leading into Christmas, you’re faced with an abundant supply of cookies, eggnog, and alcohol.

Many people gain a couple pounds over the holidays, but they’re nothing some exercise and a cleaned-up diet can’t undo. Others experience the holidays in a much different way. Not only is their willpower tested by overwhelming amounts of delicious food, but they’re also coping with a roller coaster of emotions. For them, overeating isn’t just a one-day event. Overeating is either a result of underlying depression or a precursor to it.

In these cases, knowing about the relationship between depression and overeating is crucial to finding the right treatment.

What Is Binge Eating Disorder (BED)?

In the U.S., about 3.5% of women and 2% of men suffer with binge eating disorder. It’s characterized by frequent episodes of excessive eating. More specifically, it’s defined by quickly consuming a large number of calories that would take most people two hours to finish. Binge eating can be diagnosed when at least three of these symptoms are present:

  • Eating large amounts of food very quickly
  • Eating until you are uncomfortably full
  • Eating even after you feel full
  • Eating by yourself to hide the amount of food you’re consuming
  • Feeling disgusted, depressed, or guilty after overeating

The effects of BED eating disorder can range from obesity to high cholesterol. In fact, two of every three people who have this condition are classified as obese.

Another glaring friend to binge eating disorder is depression.

Depression and Overeating: Which Comes First?

Depression can take hold in many forms. It can zap your energy, cause you to be irritable, and even alter your appetite. In some cases, depression significantly suppresses hunger. For other people, persistent sadness can induce binge eating.

One study found that a specific group of veterans who expressed signs of depression and PTSD also showed a tendency to binge eat. The researchers concluded that the psychiatric conditions of this group led them to become overweight or obese.

But why?

People with depression seek different tactics to shake those feelings of sadness. To boost your mood, you start munching. When a couple bites of food don’t suppress your feelings, you keep reaching for more with the hope that some amount will bring you satisfaction. Before you know it, you have overeaten.

If your depression is not properly treated, these episodes can happen again and again.

On the other hand, it could be that an eating disorder develops first. As mentioned earlier, binge eating can result in depression because compulsively eating leads you to:

  • Feeling like you lack control
  • Feeling guilty or regretful for eating too much at once
  • Feeling disgusted with yourself

These feelings, along with emotional detachment or numbness, are what defines depressive overeating.

Another potential reason for depressive eating is the type of food you might eat during a bingeing episode. If comfort food is your go-to, you could be adding fuel to the fire. Animal studies indicated that a diet high in saturated fat and refined sugar reduces brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). That’s associated with memory and your ability to learn new things. “Decreased BDNF may be a pathogenic factor involved not only in dementia and depression, but also in type 2 diabetes,” according to a 2007 human study.

Eating high-sugar foods can also mute your hunger signals. One study proved that chronic sugar intake reduces activity in your brain’s anorexigenic oxytocin system. That controls the signals that say you’re satisfied. In the study, rats that chronically ate sugar had fewer oxytocin neurons, leading to incomplete or impaired satiation. When your body can’t tell if it’s full or not, you’re likely to continue eating well past your stomach’s limit.

The Health Risks of Depressive Overeating

In addition to depression, there are a few serious health risks that come from binge eating. Some of these can be life-threatening if they’re not addressed.

1. Weight Gain or Obesity

Two-thirds of people with binge eating disorder are obese. Eating too much food in a short period is a surefire way to gain weight, especially if moderate exercise is not part of your regular routine.

2. Heart Disease

Heart disease often comes along with obesity. Extra weight on your body makes it more difficult for your heart to pump blood. Combine that with excessive visceral fat (belly fat), and you significantly increase your risk of heart attack and stroke. The nutritional value of the food you overeat can contribute to high cholesterol or high blood pressure as well.

3. Type 2 Diabetes

As with heart disease, the type of food you eat can raise your risk of type 2 diabetes. If your binge eating episodes feature more sweet things than celery sticks, you’re spiking your blood sugar levels and teaching your body to become resistant to insulin.

depression and overeating

How to Treat Depressive Overeating

Depression and overeating can be treated as co-occurring disorders or by focusing on the underlying issue. If depression is causing you to binge eat, your depression should be treated first. If overeating continues after your depression is under control, then you may want to seek treatment for BED.

Here are a few possible treatment options for depression and overeating, so you don’t feed your feelings:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy can be helpful for both an eating disorder and depression. During your therapy sessions, you might discuss feelings about your body image, self-esteem, and perfectionism. Your therapist will look for triggers that cause your depression and overeating, so they can teach you how to cope with them more effectively.

By improving your body image and self-esteem, you may feel relief from depression. As a result, your tendencies to binge eat may become less.

Nutrition Counseling

When BED presents itself first, nutrition counseling can be helpful. Through regular appointments with a registered dietitian and/or certified counselor, you’ll learn how to approach eating in a healthy, balanced way. This form of therapy can help you develop a better relationship with food, so you don’t feel the need to overeat. Resolving your urge to binge helps you avoid the subsequent feelings of depression.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

If depression is the underlying factor, transcranial magnetic stimulation can help. Also known as TMS, this form of therapy has been clinically proven to treat depression, especially in people who haven’t responded to anti-depressant medications. These are non-invasive, in-office treatments that relieve depression by stimulating certain regions of your brain. With each treatment session, your brain will continue to respond to the gentle electromagnetic stimulation until your depressive symptoms improve or completely disappear.

Depression and overeating is a dangerous cycle that’s difficult to live with. Don’t wait to treat your depression or binge eating, so you can protect your physical health and improve your life. Remember that you’re never alone; help is always just a phone call away. If you think TMS treatment could be right for you, reach out to HPR Treatment Centers at 877-561-6839.

About Jon Nilsen

Jon started his TMS career in 2008, shortly after TMS was by the FDA. He has worked as a treater and TMS consultant for many TMS centers in the Chicagoland area and across the country and has nearly 1,000 patient contacts with TMS therapy. Jon prides himself on his motor threshold process to ensure every patient has the best chance of responding to TMS with accurate settings and a comfortable experience.

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