The Relationship Between Anxiety, Depression and Weight Gain

Weight loss

Most people that are on weight loss programs have a negative view of their body. Combining this negative self-image with a cultural bias in society against those who are overweight and obese can re-affirm low self-esteem and increase the chances of developing high levels of anxiety leading to depression. Individuals that are anxious or depressed are more likely to experience weight gain which contributes further to the poor self-image, and a cycle begins. The anxiety over body image creates a vicious downward spiral towards depression, and even additional weight gain, which can seem overwhelming and impossible to break. For those that may be in this cycle there are options that will enable you to break free from the anxiety or depression leading to weight gain and preventing weight loss.

The Science Behind Depression, Anxiety And Weight Gain

 Depression, anxiety, anger, guilt and fear are emotions that originate in our brains, as do the positive emotions of pleasure, happiness and joy. It is not known why some people are prone to depression and anxiety in their lives while others in similar conditions are not, but research so far indicates it is a combination of brain chemistry and genetics coupled with responses to a surrounding environment.

Serotonin is neurotransmitter produced in the brain. This brain chemical has been closely linked to depression and the intake of certain foods, particularly the consumption of carbohydrate rich or high fat foods. Carbohydrates and high fat foods encourage production of serotonin which improves mood. Researchers have found that those individuals producing low levels of serotonin in the brain have a greater chance of experiencing anxiety or depressed moods, and thus develop cravings for specific types of food containing carbohydrates and sugar.1 In other words, some foods may temporarily promote feelings of happiness, so naturally you want to eat more of them and feel good! Unfortunately, these are the same foods that contribute to weight gain.

 Other studies using longitudinal testing found that depression itself was related to weight gain. The risk appears to be highest for adolescent females. Young girls reporting depression in teen years were more likely to become obese in adulthood.2   While the factors that influence weight gain in these studies may be attributed to the use of various antidepressant medications, the majority of adult female individuals in the study were not on antidepressants but rather had poor dietary habits and led very sedentary lives without regular exercise and physical activity.

Sleep may also play a role in weight gain. In a large group study of over 68,000 women it was found that women that slept less than 5 hours per day gained more weight than women sleeping 6 or more hours per day. This group was also more likely to gain 15 kilograms over the 16 year longitudinal study. 3  Since people that have depression and anxiety often have abnormal sleep patterns that impact all aspects of physical and mental health, these underlying issues need to be addressed in a weight loss program.

The Counseling Connection

 Counseling that uses a holistic approach to treating the body, mind and spirit is an  effective option for changing the way the person views herself.  Treating the whole person includes improving self-image and attitudes towards food through cognitive restructuring. In cognitive restructuring, the thought process is changed using one of a couple of techniques. You are taught how to interrupt the thought processes that lead to over eating and poor dietary habits, poor self-image and feelings of self-worth, and loss of self-control.

Cognitive restructuring for weight loss involves evaluating each step in the thought processes concerning specific topics to identify the association between emotions, thoughts, behavior, self-image and food. In this way you can learn to recognize and stop the triggers that prompt you to eat foods contributing to weight gain. Studies have shown individuals that have negative thoughts about their body image, leading to a desire for carbohydrates and sweets in an effort to temporarily feel better, can successfully change these thoughts with simple exercises conducted over a short period of time.

In one study subjects were told to choose one word that was either a positive word or a negative descriptor that reflected the manner in which they saw themselves. Those that used the positive association would learn to change self-image through cognitive restructuring which involves interrupting a negative thought process and replacing it with a positive one. For example, some of the people wanted to associate their body image with curvy or voluptuous.  Those that were in the other group chose a negative word like “fat”. This group was taught a technique known as cognitive defusion.  In cognitive defusion a person learns how to identify the thinking process and look ahead to the end product and then change thoughts accordingly to get a different and more positive end product. Both groups were trained and counseled, and the cognitive restructuring or defusing techniques explained and demonstrated. At the end of one week of practice both groups reported a higher level of satisfaction with their body image. The cognitive restructuring group had replaced negative self-image thoughts with positive ones. The cognitive defusing group had taken the discomfort and anxiety away from the word, giving them a more accurate and open view of their positive traits and an improved self-image.4

 Other new studies have shown that combining cognitive restructuring techniques and technology is effective. In a study in Raleigh-Durham North Carolina, the use of  podcasting that included cognitive restructuring exercises and exercise education was shown to be an effective tool for promoting weight loss. Individuals in the study listened to 12 weeks worth of information and lost between 2.9 and 3.5 kilograms over the course of the program.5 Although not as personal as counseling or e-therapy, this study showed how technology can be used to educate and counsel people about weight loss and achieve cognitive restructuring.

People who need to lose weight and maintain the weight loss need ongoing support for success in many cases. It’s not possible to make an appointment with a therapist every time you need to help overcoming temptations or need direction. However, phone therapy and e-therapy makes it possible to talk, email or chat with a counselor when you do need the help. In fact, psychotherapy as lifestyle counseling has proven to be highly successful in helping those dealing with excessive weight or obesity.6 When anxious, depressed and battling weight issues, it’s critical that you are able to call or contact a therapist when counseling is really needed.

Counseling is an effective tool for assisting people with successful weight loss when they are experiencing depression, anxiety or stress. With the support of a counselor, new skills for coping that are healthier and contribute to weight loss goals can be developed. You can learn to recognize the emotional reliance on certain foods and change thought patterns and a negative self-image to gain the confidence needed for successful weight loss.


 1 Wurtzman, J. J. (1993). Depression and weight gain: the seretonin connection. Journal of Affective Disorders , 183-192.

2 Blaine, B. (2008). Does Depression Cause Obesity?A Meta-analysis of Longitudinal Studies of Depression and Weight Control. Journal of Health Psychology , 1190-1197.

3 Patel, S. R., Malhotra, A., White, D. P., et al. (2006). Association between Reduced Sleep and Weight Gain in Women. American Journal of Epidemiology , 947-954.

4 Deacon, B., Fawzy, T. I., Lickel, J. J., et al. (218-232). Cognitive Defusion Versus Cognitive Restructuring in the Treatment of Negative Self-Referential Thoughts: An Investigation of Process and Outcome . Journal of Cognitive Pscyhotherapy , 2011.

5 Turner-McGrievy, G. M., Campbell, M. K., Tate, D. F., et al. (2009). Pounds Off Digitally Study: A Randomized Podcasting Weight-Loss Intervention. American Journal of Preventive Medicine , 263-269.

6van Wier, Marieke F; Geertje AM Ariens; J Caroline Dekkers, et. al., Phone and email counselling are effective for weight management in an overweight working population: a randomized controlled trial. Research article retrieved from BioMed Central at www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2458/9/6/.


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