The link between depression, eating habits and obesity

People with depression often have unhealthy eating habits. This is the conclusion that Deborah Gibson Smith (dietician) and Nadine Paans (psychologist) come to after their research on nutrition, eating styles and depression. They will defend their theses at February 11th and 12th at VU University Amsterdam.

Depression and obesity both have a high prevalence in the Netherlands. One in five people will develop a depression during their lives, and about a third of all people are overweight or even obese. Depression and obesity often occur together, but how they are linked and which factors may be responsible for the joint association is still unclear. “Thus in 2014 the MooDFOOD project was started to investigate this link between obesity and depression. This project examined the role of nutrition, nutrition-related behavior and obesity in the prevention of depression”, says Nadine Paans.

Dietician Deborah Gibson-Smith focused on the relationship between obesity, nutrition and depression. In her research using almost 3000 participants from the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety (NESDA), Deborah shows among that people with current depression and anxiety disorder consume a less healthy diet than people without psychiatric disorders . “In particular, a low intake of vegetables and wholegrain cereals was associated with more severe depression” commented Deborah.

Psychologist Nadine Paans investigated the relationships between eating styles and depression. She also used  data from NESDA.  Nadine found that people with a depressive disorder were more likely to suffer from emotional and external eating. Emotional eating, is an eating style where people tend to eat more as a result of negative emotions and external eating is eating as a result of external cues, such as smelling a seeing something tasty. “I found that depression is related to a higher consumption of savory snacks”, Nadine says. This was explained by a higher tendency for external eating in people with depression. 

"Our research suggests that unhealthy eating habits are associated with depression”, says Deborah. She explains that improving eating habits, for example through lifestyle coaching, could possibly contribute to reducing symptoms of depression. Paans: ”In this way we will hopefully work towards the best possible, tailor-made interventions, which can stop both depression and obesity.”