Depression's Effect on Your AppetiteBoth a loss of appetite and eating too much can be signs of depression. Understanding the link between depression and diet can help you manage.
Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
Depression is a feeling of sadness that does not go away for two weeks or longer and begins to interfere with your ability to function day to day. One of the most common signs of depression is a change in how much you eat. For some people with depression, this means a loss of appetite, while for others, eating may increase.
"Loss of appetite can be an early sign of depression or a warning of a depression relapse. On the other hand, some people can't stop eating when they are depressed,” says Gary Kennedy, MD, director of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, New York. “A sudden change in weight, either gaining or losing, can be a warning of depression, especially in someone who has other symptoms of depression or a history of depression."
How Depression Affects Appetite
Changes in your eating habits may be due to other symptoms of depression. "Many people with depression lose both interest and energy. This can include a loss of interest in eating,” says Dr. Kennedy. “This may be especially true for older people with depression, who lose interest in cooking and don't have the energy to prepare meals. For others, nausea may be a symptom of their depression and a cause for loss of appetite."
While loss of appetite is a common depression symptom, feelings of sadness or worthlessness can make some people overeat. "Depression can also result in emotional eating, a common event in which the need to eat is not associated with physical hunger,” says Debra J. Johnston, RD, director of nutrition at Remuda Ranch, an eating disorder treatment center in Wickenburg, Ariz. “Instead, emotional eating is eating in response to emotional hunger. When patients eat in response to their emotions, they are soothed by the food as it changes the chemical balance in the brain, produces a feeling of fullness that is more comfortable than an empty stomach, and improves mood through positive association with happier times."
When Should You Talk to a Doctor?
Different people with depression have different symptoms, but a sudden change in appetite is a common sign of depression that should not be ignored. Here are warning signs you should tell your doctor about:
- A change in appetite along with other symptoms such as sadness, guilt, loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, changes in sleep, or digestive symptoms like constipation or nausea
- Eating to avoid thinking about your problems or to avoid your feelings, or eating even though you are not hungry
- Any change in eating habits or a significant change in your weight, especially if you have a history of depression. "People with depression can experience severe weight loss that can be dangerous to their physical health," warns Kennedy.
- Any thoughts of death or suicide; if this happens, let your doctor know immediately
"There is no depression diet that will cure or prevent clinical depression, but there is research to show that some diets are better than others for depression," says Kennedy. These nutrition tips may help:
- Mediterranean diet. "There is some research to support that a Mediterranean-style diet, which is high in fruits, nuts, legumes, and olive oil, and low in saturated fats, decreases the risk of depression," says Kennedy.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. These substances are found in cold-water fish and have been shown to be important in brain function. Some studies show that they may enhance a person's response to antidepressant medications.
- Vitamins and nutrients. "Research shows that deficiency of nutrients such as vitamin B12, vitamin B6, and tryptophan can have a negative effect on mood. Consequently, poor nutrition that results from loss of appetite can further exacerbate depression," explains Johnston.
- Nutritional support.You may want to talk to a dietitian about your eating habits. "A dietitian can help the depressed patient by creating a nutritionally balanced meal plan that takes into account the patient’s individual needs,” says Johnston. “For example, the depressed patient may not have the energy or desire to prepare a meal. The dietitian will consider this and create menus that utilize easy-to-prepare foods.” Severely depressed individuals may need nutritional supplements to help prevent weight loss and nutrient deficiency.