Posted by: jedwardswright | December 30, 2010

The “Ate Myself into a Larger Size” Blues

It is almost time for the annual New Year’s reckoning with the scale, heaven help me.

It’s not that I overate on the holidays, oh no, not me. I pigged out. Frankly, I enjoyed every bite!

However, Father Time is moving on, and so I must face the realities of 2011. Not only am I unhappy with my appearance, but I also have some health concerns that need to be wrestled to the ground. If I am not a diabetic already, I am darned close. (I don’t have a blood-testing kit at this point.)

After three years as an online team leader for a group supporting people who are struggling with both weight issues and depression, Dealing with Depression , I am completely convinced that there is a link between depression and overweight/obesity, as this group currently has over 673,000 members, and no, I did not misplace a zero in that number. What I wasn’t sure of was whether we were depressed because we were overweight or overweight because we were depressed.

A recent study at the University of Alabama found a correlation between the severity of depression and an increase in abdominal fat. Teenagers who described themselves as depressed and were followed over a twenty year period. At twenty years, the individuals who identified themselves as suffering from severe depression had gained an average of 2.6 cm. (slightly more than an inch) more around the waist than those who were less depressed.[i]

People experiencing stress (including depression) produce more cortisol, and high levels of cortisol are linked to weight gain. Cortisol regulates the release of sugar into the bloodstream. When we are stressed, our bodies prepare to run away from a potential threat by demanding readily accessible energy in the form of sugar (glucose), so more cortisol is released. The more stress we feel, the higher our blood sugar climbs.[ii]

Here is how I imagine this sequence.

Depression > Stress > Cortisol > Blood Sugar^ > Weight Gain

Now, since depressed people have higher levels of blood sugar, wouldn’t it make sense if depression was also linked to Type 2 diabetes? In fact, a study at Johns Hopkins in 2008 found that there is a link – however, their conclusion was that diabetes contributes to depression, not the other way around.[iii]  An earlier study, published by the American Diabetes Society, found that Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) develops well before the onset of Type 2 Diabetes in individuals with both conditions.[iv] If the latter is true, the hypothesis that MDD can contribute to the development of Type 2 Diabetes is more likely to be correct.  The nature of the relationship between diabetes and depression seems to still be a subject of disagreement among the experts.

Are we more prone to gaining weight? Yes. Is weight gain inevitable for people with MDD then? No. A tendency is not a certainty! There are factors that we do control, so it is that much more important that we make better choices in those areas. These are:

  • Diet       
    • How much we eat and what we eat are up to us. Since carbs also cause more blood sugar to be released into the bloodstream, and we are likely to have elevated glucose levels already, restricting our carb intake makes sense, especially if we want to avoid developing or aggravating Type 2 Diabetes.
  • Increasing Activity Level
    • Using up some of that excess blood sugar by being more active can only help.
    • Exercise can reduce stress, which also reduces our blood sugar levels
    • Don’t let that dreaded word “exercise” intimidate you! Anything that gets you moving more is a good thing: dancing to your iPod, playing Wii, parking farther from the mall rather than searching for the closest space…just keep on burning that sugar!
  • Reducing Stress
    • If your job is stressing you out, it is harming your health. Most of us realize that stress can worsen our depression symptoms, but it can also contribute to weight gain, and possibly even diabetes. Start looking for ways to make your job less stressful (e.g. delegating, changing positions) or consider other career options. I understand that can be difficult in this economic climate, but compromising your health can be dangerous.
    • If people in your life are causing you grief, you need to make changes. Whether you need to get counseling for a relationship, or distance yourself from someone, or even cut off communication, take action to prevent further damage to your heart, body, and soul. I strongly recommend the book Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend to anyone who is experiencing stress in their interactions with others.
    •  Take time to relax. If you are constantly rushing from one activity to another, you need a break. Whether this means a vacation, a “mental health day,” or sending the kids to sleep over at the grandparents, make sure that you have enough down time to refill your batteries.
    • Say no. Practice if necessary. Taking on tasks that are going to leave you drained or fuming isn’t worth it. Going to a family gathering that will send you into a panic attack or a crying spree – not worth it. People-pleasing behavior can destroy you.

Some of these things we have all heard before, but by understanding better that there is a physical connection between our struggles with MDD and our weight issues, hopefully we can see the reasons for making healthy changes more clearly. What we do to reduce our stress and depression can help us manage our weight, and what we do to control our weight may also help with our depression. Now that is a win-win situation!




  1. I know for me, when I’m feeling super depressed, I’m unlikely to make the effort to make a healthier meal. Instead I go for something that is quick and easy and will more likely cause a spike in the blood sugar.

  2. We end up eating out a lot, which makes healthy eating a serious challenge. I mean, how many times can a person eat a salad with chicken, right? I almost always bring home half, but it is still ridiculous how many calories and carbs are in these things!

    • So true! I have some sort of “safety net” as I cannot eat gluten/wheat, which means I generally can’t eat most things on the menu. However, now that many restaurants and getting more allergy friendly, it’s opened a new world of many more calories. 😛

      • I can’t eat corn, so that cuts out a few things, like nachos for instance. 😦
        I am also supposed to restrict dairy, which I used to be more strict about, but so you think it prevented me from gaining even more weight? Of course not!

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