How Depression And Weight Gain Are Often Related

Updated April 22, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

A widespread phenomenon seen in patients with depression is weight change. Depression symptoms can lead to weight gain and weight issues for several different reasons, including changes to one's appetite that lead to behaviors such as binge eating, changes in hormones, or the side effects of medication. This article will show you why depression might be causing you to gain unwanted weight, as well as discuss some options for treatment.

Your Depression And Weight Gain May Be Related

Increased Appetite, Eating Disorders, And Obesity

Adults and children experiencing depression may be at higher risk of being overweight or obsese. Depression itself does not directly cause weight gain, but the symptoms of depression, such as sadness and loneliness, can lead people to overeat.

A study consisting of 1,396 subjects, found that during depressive episodes, subjects who were already obese were five times more likely to overeat than their non-obese counterparts. The results of the study suggested that it was not the depression itself that caused the weight gain: rather, it was the sense of hopelessness that can accompany depression that led the subjects to overeat. That study also showed that those who were already obese experienced symptoms of depression that were both more severe and also more persistent.

Binge eating is a psychiatric condition that can be comorbid with depression, and is one of the primary reasons people overeat and gain weight. When binge eating, people will typically eat larger portions than normal and at a faster pace, and overall they will feel like they lack impulse control of their eating habits.

Some people engage in binge eating to alleviate symptoms of depression, but at the same time, the people who struggle with binge eating can find that overeating itself leads to negative feelings, and that it can potentially make them feel more depressed and isolated. For example, an individual may feel embarrassed or disgusted about how they eat and may choose to do it alone.

Changes in appetite and overeating related to depression might be connected to the brain's reward pathway. One study found that those who consume more food during a depressed state may have increased activity in certain parts of the brain when presented with food stimuli. This is very similar to how "comfort food" seems to work: foods that tend to be high in calories or sugar can create a temporary boost in the neurotransmitter hormone dopamine which increases pleasure, and thus a temporary boost in one's emotional well-being.

By contrast, some people lose weight when experiencing depression. Those who have weak appetites when they are depressed may have reduced activity in the part of the brain responsible for interoception, which is the term for the ability to feel things like hunger or thirst.

Decreased Physical Activity

People living with major depressive disorder and moderate depression may find themselves lacking the motivation to go to work or to do things that they normally enjoy. For these individuals, going out and getting some exercise may be the last thing on their minds, but an increasingly sedentary lifestyle can cause someone to gain weight, especially if they were active once before.

This has to do with energy expenditure. When people do not participate in any physical activity, even a light walk around the neighborhood, fewer calories are being burned, and this excess energy will be stored in the body, leading to weight gain.

When paired with overeating, a lack of physical activity can lead to obesity because the individual is consuming more calories than their body can burn. Exercise can help to an extent by burning extra energy; however, dietary changes may also be required to address any unwanted weight gain.

In addition to potentially leading to weight loss, studies have shown that exercise is also beneficial in treating symptoms of depression directly, and studies show that moderately intense physical activity can improve mood. Even low-intensity exercise may be helpful for those who cannot participate in more vigorous activities.

There are several different mechanisms at work in this process. The most well-known idea is that exercise causes the brain to release endorphins, which elevate one's sense of well-being, but some studies have shown that neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are also boosted during and following exercise.

Additionally, psychological factors, like being distracted from depressing thoughts and an enhanced sense of self-efficacy may also have a role in the way exercise helps to reduce depression. These positive psychological effects can help people become more motivated and help them to stick to workout and dietary routines, and to feel better about themselves overall.

Stress Hormones

In response to stressful events, the body is known to secrete hormones to help regulate specific processes. One of the primary chemicals related to this is cortisol, which is released from the adrenal glands. Cortisol has important functions in the body, like keeping blood pressure and glucose levels under control, and it can even help reduce inflammation. Low levels of cortisol can make you feel tired and weak. However, having cortisol levels that are too high can lead to a variety of changes in the body, including weight gain.

Excess cortisol due to stress can increase one's appetite, especially for foods that are high in fat and sugar, because they can provide emotional comfort. Elevated cortisol levels are also sometimes correlated with insulin resistance, which is a condition in which the body cannot use insulin properly and which can lead to weight gain.

One study demonstrated that both people who are currently living with depression and also those who are at risk for the condition exhibited higher cortisol levels in the morning and the evening compared to control groups. Another study showed that some people who have a both a high reactivity to cortisol and a high level of stress in their lives may be at risk for chronic overeating.

Although food may provide temporary relief from stress or depression, using food as a form of self-medication can ultimately lead to other problems, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Studies have shown that learning to eat mindfully is one tool you can use to continue to eat healthfully and avoid unwanted weight gain even when you are depressed. Additionally, exercise can help dampen the effects of stress and depression and effectively reduce the need to reach out for comfort foods.

Antidepressant Medications

An expert in clinical psychiatry, or a psychiatrist may prescribe antidepressants to treat the symptoms of depression. The use of antidepressants in treating depression has been correlated with weight gain, but there is no single reason why this occurs. Many factors can affect whether a person will gain weight after starting a course of antidepressants, including the type of medication, improved mood that leads to an interest in eating more in those who were not eating because they were depressed, and also the age of the patient, since weight gain is often a normal part of the aging process. If on antidepressant medications it is important to continue to attend regular psychiatry sessions that you psychiatrist can help you manage the side effects of medication. 

SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are one of the most common types of antidepressant. These medications work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin has important roles in digestion and other body functions, and some SSRIs have been linked to weight gain. Tricyclic antidepressants are another type of medication used to treat depression. These types of medication may be more likely to raise appetite, leading to unwanted weight gain in some people, and healthy weight gain in others who had not been eating properly because they were depressed. More research is needed to determine whether weight gain is truly a direct side effect of antidepressants or whether it lifestyle factors are the greater influence instead.

If you have noticed unwanted weight gain after starting antidepressants, discuss it with your primary doctor or psychiatrist before stopping your medication. Abruptly ending the use of some antidepressant medications on a treatment plan can cause uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, so discontinuing their use should be supervised by a medical professional.


If you are depressed, unwanted weight gain may be both uncomfortable and hard to deal with, especially if you do not understand why it is occurring. Hopefully this article has given you some insight as to how depression and weight gain can be linked.

However, by adjusting some lifestyle factors, such as selecting and sticking to a healthy, well-balanced diet and regular exercise, you not only may be able to lose that unwanted weight but may also improve your mood and overall feelings of well-being.

Making lifestyle changes can feel daunting, especially if you’re trying to make those changes while also living with depression. If depression and stress are holding you back, getting counseling from a licensed therapist can help. The licensed therapists at are available to talk with you and get you on the road to recovery by using different treatments and techniques including talk therapy, writing in a journal, and group therapy.

While some people may find going to in-person sessions with a therapist to be more comfortable for them, studies have shown that online therapy sessions have their own particular benefits and can be just as productive as in-person sessions in the treatment of depression. Benefits of online sessions include accessibility wherever there’s an Internet connection, so patients can meet with their therapists in the safety, comfort, and privacy of their own homes, and online therapy in some instances may be a less expensive option than traditional in-person therapy.

By learning how to manage your symptoms through therapy, you can find productive strategies for managing your depression. With assistance and support from a licensed therapist, you can begin to move forward in creating a healthier future for yourself.

You Don’t Have To Face Depression Alone. Our Experienced Counselors Can Help.

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