Depression and Overeating

Estimated reading time: 29 minute(s)

Food is one of the most important aspects of life. It is not only required for survival but is also connected to one’s cultural identity, family ties, and social rituals. Experts believe that food carries the power to fuel a body and soothe the soul. Because food is so closely tied to powerful emotions, it can also become associated with many types of emotional disorders.

Research has found many connections between depression and overeating. [1] The two conditions can present with overlapping symptoms. Recognizing them and seeking treatment simultaneously is the best way to move forward in such conditions.

Defining Overeating

Overeating describes an act of consuming more calories than what the body needs to work and function properly. This phenomenon may exhibit in different ways, such as the following:

  • Eating when not hungry
  • Eating more quickly than usual
  • Eating even after feeling satiety

It is normal to overeat occasionally, especially during certain events and holidays that revolve around the idea of feasting and enjoying food. However, some people may continue struggling with overeating until the problem becomes chronic. In this case, their behavior is driven not only by external festivities but also by strong internal feelings and mental health concerns.

Does Depression Make You Eat More?

Many different types of mental health illnesses, such as depression, can force a person to eat even when they are not hungry. This relationship has been explained by research, and multiple causes have been highlighted. For instance, research suggests that scent-evoked nostalgia is one reason people turn to comfort food while undergoing a depressive spell. A study conducted by experienced researchers found that smelling comfort food can evoke memories related to happy days, making a person feel more optimistic and positive. [2] When this is true for someone, they are likelier to keep turning to food to seek comfort.

Another reason that links depression with overeating is the release of insulin and endorphins following a meal. Endorphins are hormones that trigger euphoria in a person, and anything that causes excitement or happiness will fill the bloodstream with endorphins. Like endorphins, insulin is a natural hormone that controls how body cells store and use blood sugar for energy extraction. For instance, when a person eats a candy bar, their blood sugar rises, which causes insulin to work on it. As this happens, the body cells get a boost of energy that subsequently elevates mood.

Depression and Overeating: What is the Role of Sugar Addiction?

Clinical evidence suggests that sugar can be addictive for both humans and animals. Excessive consumption of sugar in any form triggers the reward pathway in the brain in a similar way as stimulants and opioids do. While eating a candy bar or a slice of cake cannot make someone addicted to sugar, eating four to five of them every day consistently can impact the brain, forcing it to release heavy amounts of acetylcholine, dopamine, and other chemicals linked to substance addiction.

When a person with underlying depression consumes a lot of sugary food daily, they may undergo withdrawal symptoms once they stop eating them. Consequently, their underlying depressive symptoms may also worsen, leading them to resume their depressive overeating again. Such people are also more likely to develop nutritional deficiencies due to unhealthy eating, contributing to the onset of depression.

People with underlying depression and other mental health issues like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder commonly suffer from one or more nutritional deficiencies. These people may particularly lack omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and amino acids crucial to making neurotransmitters. Consequently, when these neurotransmitter levels become depleted, the underlying depression is likely to worsen.

Processed food with high sugar content virtually contains no minerals or vitamins. Such food items only provide cholesterol, fat, salt, sugar, and minimal protein. So, regardless of which problem comes first, what a person eats can have a huge impact on their mental health.

What Comes First: Overeating or Depression?

Research investigating what comes first among depression and overeating has given mixed results so far. Some studies have shown that being overweight comes first, followed by developing depression. They also suggest the risk of having depression does not depend on how obese a person may be. In other words, a person who is 10 pounds overweight may not be as depressed as someone who is 50 pounds overweight. This discrepancy comes from different biopsychosocial factors, such as personality, family environment, and genetics.

According to the neurobiological theory, depression precedes overeating. Certain parts of the brain that are directly affected by depression are also involved in how a person responds to hunger and food. Imaging scans show that people with depression have cellular and functional differences in these brain areas than people with no depression. [3]

However, neither of the theories explains why some people respond to depression by overeating while others begin overeating. Newer research indicates that depressed individuals with overeating issues experience hyperactivation in the mesocorticolimbic reward circuitry. In contrast, people with depression who lose their appetite experience a reduction in this area’s activity levels. These activation levels’ differences may depend on genetics and overall brain architecture.

Health Risks of Depressive Overeating

In addition to depression, overeating can lead to plenty of health risks, some of which may become life-threatening if not appropriately addressed. These may include:

Obesity or weight gain

Two-thirds of people with an underlying binge eating disorder are obese. Their habit of overeating food in such a short time allows them to gain weight, especially if they do not exercise routinely.

Cardiovascular diseases

Obesity and heart disease often go hand in hand as extra fat on the body makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood. Having extra visceral fat surrounding the belly makes a person even more vulnerable to encountering a stroke or heart attack. Moreover, depending on the quality and nature of food a person consumes, they may also develop high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol, which further harm the heart.

Type 2 diabetes

As with heart disease, certain food choices can also put a person at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This is particularly true for people whose overeating episodes involve sweet, sugary things that spike their blood sugar.

Unregulated stress

Chronic stress can boost one’s appetite, causing a person to crave sugar-loaded, high-fat food. Consequently, a person not only ends up eating more but also faces other health concerns, like poor sleep, headaches, and more.

How to Stop Eating When Depressed?

People who overeat due to underlying depression are likely to benefit from professional treatment. If they are already diagnosed with major depressive disorder, an inpatient rehab can teach them various self-help techniques to manage mood disorders and other related behaviors. Medications and psychotherapy are also available to stabilize mood and are important components of a comprehensive treatment plan.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is one of the best forms of psychotherapy to help people understand how negative thoughts and emotions can influence their actions. Once a CBT therapist shows an individual how to break the cycle between depression and overeating, the patient can start making healthy changes to the way they think about themselves, their eating habits, and the surrounding world.

Most depression treatment programs involving CBT are based on the idea that negative thoughts lead to negative emotions, including depression. Counselors involved in these programs use CBT principles to train patients to identify and stop any false beliefs about themselves and others before they take over their sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy. Some of the common cognitive distortions that CBT addresses to help a depressed individual stop overeating include the following:

  • Mentally concentrating on negative things in life while neglecting the positive things
  • Minimization and magnification, i.e., downplaying favorable events while exaggerating negative ones
  • Jumping to conclusions and assuming the worst even when there is no basis for such an assumption 
  • Personalization, i.e., feeling like everything is your fault
  • Using emotional reasoning while neglecting objective reasoning or letting emotions decide your course of action and thinking
  • Should, could, and would statements that make you obsess over past mistakes


What are the symptoms of overeating associated with depression?

Eating compulsively, even when the body does not need it, is one of the most significant signs of depressive overeating. This is particularly true in people who are eating for emotional relief instead of satisfying hunger. Other symptoms may include the following:

  • Facing difficulty in stopping eating
  • eating even after feeling full
  • Eating large amounts of food repeatedly and quickly
  • Not feeling satisfied no matter how much you eat
  • Feeling emotionally distanced, numb, or apathetic while eating
  • Feeling depressed, guilty, or disgusted after overeating

Can depression also cause a lack of appetite?

Depression can lead to poor appetite in some people while making others overeat. However, experts are still struggling to know why this difference exists in people with underlying depression. One proposed theory is the cortisol levels in both types of patients. Experts found that people with decreased appetite due to depression have higher levels of cortisol in their bodies. However, this theory still needs further confirmation.

I am depressed about my weight but can’t stop eating. Can I take any medicine for it?

Experts have a few medications available to help people with binge eating disorders. For example, Vyvanse is a common medication used to help people with this eating disorder by reducing impulsive behavior that causes them to binge on food. Many people with this problem also use antidepressants to help with the co-existing depressive disorder. While there have been instances where people with binge eating disorders used weight loss medications, most of them are illegal and not regulated by the FDA. If you have been diagnosed with depression and have an unhealthy relationship with food, the best way out is to contact a professional to find out which treatment method will suit your circumstances the most.


1 Luppino FS, de Wit LM, Bouvy PF, Stijnen T, Cuijpers P, Penninx BW, Zitman FG. Overweight, obesity, and depression: a systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Archives of general psychiatry. 2010 Mar 1;67(3):220-9.

2 Reid CA, Green JD, Wildschut T, Sedikides C. Scent-evoked nostalgia. Memory. 2015 Feb 17;23(2):157-66.

3 Simmons WK, Burrows K, Avery JA, Kerr KL, Bodurka J, Savage CR, Drevets WC. Depression-related increases and decreases in appetite: dissociable patterns of aberrant activity in reward and interoceptive neurocircuitry. American Journal of Psychiatry. 2016 Apr 1;173(4):418-28.

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