It is common for people with depression to encounter changes in their eating habits. In this Everyday Health article, Mindpath Health’s Zishan Khan, MD, explains the reciprocal relationship and provides 5 ways to manage your appetite.
If you have depression, you may notice you’re not as up to eating as you normally are. Or, on the flip side, you might be craving more food than usual. Appetite changes like these are common among people with depression, according to Mayo Clinic.
Individuals with depression might have less appetite and unintentionally lose weight.
Others with clinical depression may experience an increase in appetite, which can lead to weight gain. This is common among people who use eating to cope with negative emotions, as noted in a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.
These changes in appetite are not only potentially frustrating, but they could be harmful to your health. “For many, changes in appetite can be one of the earlier signs of being depressed or even a warning sign of an upcoming depressive episode,” says Zishan Khan, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health.
Why does depression affect your appetite?
Appetite changes among people with depression may have several potential causes.
Anhedonia — a core feature of depression that causes you to feel less pleasure from things you normally enjoy — can affect your appetite, says David Feifel, MD, PhD. Researchers are working to understand why people with depression experience anhedonia, according to a review published in the Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences.
Some people want to eat food that makes them happy and tastes good. (Think about how much time you might spend preparing a meal or food you love even if you could make something else much quicker.)
Depression is also associated with reduced executive functioning — mental skills such as working memory, attention, and problem-solving that help you get things done — according to a study published in Psychiatry Research Communications. This, in turn, appears to affect appetite among people with depression, potentially due to fatigue and decreased motivation, the study suggests.
Appetite changes could also be a side effect of antidepressant medications, according to the U.K. National Health Service.
Why appetite changes in depression risk your health
An increase or decrease in appetite caused by depression carries health risks.
Depression is one of the most significant risk factors for malnutrition among elderly people, as noted in prior research.
An increased appetite can lead to weight gain, and excess weight is associated with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, according to the American Diabetes Association.
“There is also always a concern that the appetite changes associated with prolonged depression can place a person at risk for various eating disorders, with the development of possible binging, purging, and restrictive eating behavior,” adds Dr. Khan. Depression and eating disorders commonly happen together and share some risk factors, such as low self-esteem and dissatisfaction with one’s appearance, according to a review published in the Journal of Eating Disorders. Eating disorders can cause serious health issues, including heart, gastrointestinal, and neurological problems and death, per the National Eating Disorders Association.
5 ways to curb appetite changes if you have depression
If depression has thrown off your appetite, experts have suggestions to help you stabilize it again.
1. Follow your treatment plan
Once you find the right treatment for your depression, your appetite changes should lift as your depressive symptoms improve.
Helpful, evidence-based treatments for depression, per the National Alliance on Mental Illness, include:
- Psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy
- Medications, such as antidepressants
- Lifestyle activities like exercise and meditation
2. Tell your health care providers about appetite changes
If you’re struggling with appetite issues as a symptom of your depression, be sure to let your doctor or therapist know. This is especially important if you see a mental health professional virtually because they may not be able to notice any significant weight loss or weight gain if they don’t see you in person. Telling your provider early on can help you get the treatment you need before your appetite changes, leading to serious health consequences.
3. Try meal prepping
Whether you struggle to eat enough or overeat, meal prepping — planning and preparing your meals for the week in advance — may help ensure that you eat well throughout the week.
Meal prepping can reduce your odds of under or overeating. It may be an especially helpful strategy for people with depression who may have the energy to cook over the weekend but struggle to put meals together during the work week due to symptoms like fatigue.
“Having some prepared meals frozen for you to heat up later ensures you have higher-quality food with very little fuss,” Khan says. “The point is to try to make things as easy as possible for yourself and avoid overcomplicating things.”
If you’ve never meal-prepped before, some tips for getting started, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan Public School of Health, are:
- Choose a specific day of the week to plan your meals and go grocery shopping (or have groceries delivered).
- On your designated meal prep day, start by preparing the foods that take the longest to cook, including proteins like chicken and fish.
- Try to multitask while meal-prepping. For instance, if you cook chicken in the oven, you could cut up some vegetables.
4. Consider working with a dietitian
Working with a registered dietitian or nutritionist who can help you healthily manage your appetite issues may be beneficial. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, registered dietitians can help you set and maintain nutritional goals while being sensitive to your specific health needs.
A study published in October 2019 showed that young adults with depressive symptoms who participated in a three-week diet intervention led by a registered dietitian experienced significant improvements in their mood compared to the control group who did not receive the intervention.
5. Eat with loved ones
Make time to eat with your family or friends, whether at home or a local restaurant or cafe. “Connecting with others will boost your mood and make it easier to break out of that depressed phase,” Khan says.
Research backs this up. One study published in July 2022 in Nutrients showed that adults who ate with others had lower rates of depression than those who ate alone. As noted earlier, treating the root cause of your appetite changes — depression — can help your appetite improve over time.
Another plus: If you’re struggling to eat, having supportive people around you while you eat can help ensure you get the nutrients you need.
Read the full Everyday Health article with sources. Want to learn more about your mental health? Visit our Patient Resources for articles, tips, and education from Mindpath Health’s expert clinicians.