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Can Depression Lead to an Eating Disorder?

Depression can greatly impact a person’s relationship with food. Someone who has this mental health condition might feel hungry, but nothing tastes as good as it did before. Some may not have the energy to eat anything anymore, while others may eat to find comfort when their emotions become too painful or intense. As a person’s eating habits continue to change because of their struggles with depression, the way they think about food and their body may also change. So, does this put them at risk for developing an eating disorder?

The truth is that there is a strong link between depression and eating disorders, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Over the course of their lives, about 70.7% of adults who have bulimia nervosa, 46.4% of adults who have binge-eating disorder, and 42.1% of adults who have anorexia nervosa will also struggle with depression.

Because depression and eating disorders affect everyone differently, there are many ways to connect depression with eating disorders. But one common symptom of depression is that it can impact a person’s appetite, whether they lose their appetite or feel the urge to eat more than usual. While this can happen for a lot of reasons, research shows that emotional eating often plays a role in depression, and that can ultimately influence someone’s risk for developing an eating disorder.

Eating to soothe depression symptoms

Emotional eating refers to a person eating when they feel distressing emotions like stress, anger, or sadness. A person may also confuse those negative emotions with hunger, so they eat to keep from experiencing those feelings. For those who have depression, emotional eating means turning to food to soothe their symptoms.

A wealth of research supports this, including a study in which researchers connected depression with emotional eating after following 5,024 people over seven years. So why do some people eat to numb negative emotions, while others don’t? There’s a possibility that this behavior could be tied to a person’s brain chemistry.

A smaller study compared 80 people who had major depressive disorder with 60 people who did not have a history of mental illness. The researchers found that when those who had depression ate certain foods, their dopamine levels spiked, giving them a rush of pleasure. This shows that, for some people, living with depression can make it very difficult for them to resist turning to food when they’re stressed or in emotional pain.

A symptom of two conditions

While emotional eating can impact people who have depression, it can also affect someone who has an eating disorder. In fact, like depression, eating to keep from feeling distressing emotions is a symptom of an eating disorder.

When someone has an eating disorder, they often process emotions differently from people who don’t have one of these conditions. An eating disorder can affect the way a person thinks, so someone who has an eating disorder may have trouble understanding their emotions or even identifying how they feel. When they do know how they feel, they might find it hard to accept those feelings, especially if they don’t have healthy tools to manage them.

It’s because of this battle to regulate their emotions that many people who have eating disorders turn to food for comfort or to numb those feelings. Without any other strategies to process those emotions, eating becomes the only way they know how to get through the day.

When symptoms overlap

Regardless of whether depression plays a role in a person’s struggles with an eating disorder, throwing depression into the mix only makes the situation that much more complicated. In fact, research shows that when someone is suffering from depression, it often worsens their eating disorder symptoms.

And when the symptoms of those conditions overlap, it can be tough to discern where one disorder ends and the other begins. Specifically, symptoms that are common to both eating disorders and depression include:

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty getting quality sleep
  • Changes in weight or appetite
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Withdrawal from loved ones

Given these challenges, the first step to recovery is identifying what mental health conditions someone has, whether it’s one condition or multiple overlapping conditions. Whatever someone is facing, the right treatment can help them learn to manage their symptoms, allowing them to live a full, productive life.