It can be hard to avoid comfort food on rough days, but when eating unhealthy food becomes a long-term coping mechanism, your overall health can take a major blow.
A new study found a “vicious cycle” among obesity, depression and overeating or eating too much unhealthy food. An article on ScienceDaily explains that for people with depression, eating certain foods can temporarily relieve depression as part of a “food high.”
Eventually, when certain food is considered to be a reward and relief from depression, this behavior can lead to obesity.
Although depression can lead to eating unhealthy foods, the reverse can also happen, where eating unhealthy foods can also lead to depression and obesity.
"In addition to causing obesity, rich foods can actually cause chemical reactions in the brain in a similar way to illicit drugs, ultimately leading to depression as the 'come-downs' take their toll," said Stephanie Fulton, a lead researcher in the study, in the ScienceDaily article.
So what can we do about this hard-to-break cycle that at least some of us have experienced at this point? Experts have some suggestions.
Karlene Karst, a registered dietician, the author of books like “Belly Fat Breakthrough,” and a head nutritionist for the product Safslim, has several tips for women who are trying to break the depression-obesity-overeating cycle.
1) “Figure out what is causing the stress/anxiety/depression in the first place. Knowing your body, taking control of your health and empowering yourself with knowledge is the key for moving forward.”
2) “Incorporate some type of activity three to five times per week. This is essential for helping our brain release ‘feel good’ hormones called serotonin, which helps to relieve symptoms of stress and anxiety. Great activities including hiking, walking, swimming, yoga (especially a gentle form called hatha), and pilates. Moving our body as often as possible will help combat both issues simultaneously, stress and weight loss.”
3) “To avoid excess snacking and over eating when you do eat, try to consume small amounts of food five to six times per day. This also helps to keep your blood sugar levels stable (which is also important for staving off depression). This is one of my tried and true strategies for all those I counsel on weight loss.”
4) “Stay Hydrated. Give coconut water a try. It has a delicious flavor and is very hydrating for the body. Often people mistake thirst for hunger. Or, try sparkling water with an all-natural flavored liquid stevia for a sweet, but safe treat.”
5) “Make sure protein is found at each meal/snack. Protein in the form of whole Greek yogurt, nuts/seeds, hard cheese, hard boiled eggs, hummus, and nut butters. Or for a quick meal/snack try a whey protein shake blended with your favorite milk beverage such as almond or rice milk (avoid the flavored or sugar added ones), with berries and ice.”
6) “Incorporate a clinically studied form of saffron called Satiereal. Research has shown women using Satiereal had a marked reduction in their desire to snack/over eat. Saffron is thought to affect the satiety center in the brain thereby helping to reduce emotional eating/snacking. Satiereal is also beneficial at reducing sugar cravings. It can be commercially found in the form of Hunger Chews or Capsules by ReBody.”
7) “Incorporate omega-3 fatty acid supplements from fish oil. The omega-3s, EPA and DHA, are powerful mood lifters and have been shown to increase serotonin levels. There are hundreds of clinical studies on the beneficial [effects] of omega-3s for depression. Research also shows fish oil can improve our body's release of leptin (which is a hormone that helps us to feel full and satisfied) and is an excellent option for any weight loss plan.”
8) Karst also supports using SafSlim, and she is the head nutritionist for this product. She said it is used to help get rid of belly fat, and it’s an “all-natural form of linoleic acid safflower oil.” She suggests taking two tablespoons of the product each day before eating.
Elika Kormeili, a professional therapist and health coach specializing in stress management and emotional eating, has eight tips to help prevent overeating (and the eventual depression and obesity that can happen).
1) “Learn to correctly identify your feelings. Believe it or not, a lot of people have difficulty differentiating between sad, anxious, bored and stressed.”
2) “Identify your triggers (what makes you sad or anxious).”
3) “Learn to recognize your body’s way of telling you that you are hungry.”
4) “Limit foods that trigger overeating. My suggestion: don't keep them in the house; having to go out and buy it may help hinder consumption.”
5) “Have a schedule for your meals.”
6) “Keep a food journal. It helps you identify your eating patterns and your feelings before you eat.”
7) “Create replacement activities: What are things you can do instead of eating? Perhaps you can take a relaxing bath, call a friend, or read a book.”
8) “If there are major circumstances in your life that impact your emotions, such as relationship problems or work problems, it is important to talk to a professional (therapist or health coach) that can help you combat the stressors.”
Kormeili shares what she believes causes overeating in some cases.
“Our lives are stressful with many ups and downs,” she said in an email.
“There is a constant media pressure for how you should look. Just read any magazine from Glamour to [Cosmopolitan], and you are hit hard with this message. When you don't fit into the stereotype of what beauty or health should look like, then it affects your self-esteem. The worse you feel about yourself, the more likely you are to engage in emotional eating. Depression increases your appetite and lowers your motivation to be active. It doesn't really matter if depression came first or obesity, but it is clear that the two are connected.”
Trudy Scott, a food mood expert, certified nutritionist, and author of “The Anti-Anxiety Food Solution,” said in an email that emotional eating has a biological cause.
“Emotional eaters are often drawn to comfort foods like cakes, cookies, chocolate and ice cream as a result of low endorphins, our feel-good brain chemical,” Scott said.
“A big clue that you have low endorphins is that you really, really love the food you are craving – such as chocolate – and when you do indulge [it] provides pleasure, comfort or a numbing effect. These comfort foods are often addicting and provide short-term pleasure. However, they do lead to weight gain and cause nutrient depletions of zinc, magnesium and other minerals, leading to further indulgences and a vicious cycle.”
However, there are some ways you can combat these issues.
“The amino acid supplement DPA (d-phenylalanine) is very effective for raising endorphins and eliminating emotional eating so you won’t feel deprived and won’t have to use willpower,” Scott said.
“Moderate exercise also raises levels of endorphins, and therefore can help with sadness and comfort eating. Meditation and acupuncture can also help raise endorphin levels. Interestingly, acts of generosity, such [as] doing nice things for others, can also raise endorphin levels.”
There are many ways to combat the cycle of depression-obesity-overeating. Working on your exercise, sleep and diet routines seem to all impact mood and the development of some mental disorders like depression.
What are your suggestions?
ScienceDaily. Vicious Cycle of Over-Eating and Feeling Depressed Explained. Web. May 29, 2012.
Karst, Karlene. Email interview. May 29, 2012.
Scott, Trudy. Email interview. May 29, 2012. http://www.antianxietyfoodsolution.com
Kormeili, Elika. Email interview. May 29, 2012.
Reviewed May 30, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith