If you battle depression, you may know how weight gain or trouble losing weight with depression go hand-in-hand. The problem can affect the approximately 16 million adults in the United States who suffer from major depression.
Many people find they gain weight as they age regardless of being diagnosed with a major depressive disorder. Women often find it difficult to lose weight after the birth of a child and as their metabolism changes over time. Working at a sedentary job, or a “desk job,” after many potentially more active years in high school and college can also contribute to weight gain.
If you are a parent, aside from chasing your kids around to keep them out of trouble, you may also find it hard to lose weight. It’s tempting to finish off a child’s snack or meal rather than waste food, and getting any kind of focused physical activity with toddlers or young children at home is very difficult.
It is possible to lose weight with depression. It’s a little harder, but with the right support, encouragement, knowledge, and facts you can indeed improve your health, reduce your waistline, and lose weight. Here are some tips for weight loss for those suffering from depression.
Deciding to Try and Lose Weight
Weight gain can be a problem for several reasons. First, of course, is the uncomfortable feeling of clothes becoming too tight. You may be unhappy with your appearance or find it difficult to complete what used to be simple tasks, such as walking up a flight of stairs without losing your breath.
The most common method of losing weight is to reduce your caloric intake while increasing the amount of physical activity you get each day. Reducing your calories may be as simple as eliminating meals out on special occasions or cutting desserts and snacks from your diet. For others, a focused approach to improving your diet works best. Group participation in weight loss programs, joining a gym, or even making a date to go for a walk with a friend every night are all great ways to start losing weight.
Despite understanding the basics of reducing calories and increasing activity levels, you may still find losing weight is hard. When you feel low energy due to your depression, it’s easy to forgo a trip to the gym or skip a workout. When you feel anxious and the donuts at a meeting offer a momentary pick-me-up, it’s hard to say "no thank you.”
Many people have trouble losing weight with depression. Depression can make losing weight even harder due to chemical changes in the brain, medications to control depression, and the symptoms of depression itself.
Why is it Hard to Lose Weight When You Have Depression?
Why is it so hard to lose weight when you have depression? Certainly a handful of people do lose weight when they are depressed. They may forget to eat or they may restrict calories in an effort to gain control over some facet of their lives.
But this is less common. It’s much more common for those suffering from depression to see a sudden or steady rise in their weight. There are a number of reasons a strong connection exists between weight gain and depression.
Depression and Changes in Metabolism
Studies have shown that those suffering from depression undergo changes in metabolism, which is essentially how quickly you turn nutrients into energy. Everyone has a base metabolic rate. It may differ from person to person, depending on the chemicals in your brain and how they work. If your metabolism is high, you will burn calories faster and with less effort than someone whose metabolism is low.
Often when your metabolism slows, you gain weight. This happens naturally as you get older. But it also occurs when you suffer from depression. Sometimes it’s because of medications you may be taking to treat your illness. Several depression medications have been associated with weight gain. If you mention this to your doctor, they may be able to help you switch to another medicine that doesn’t have that side effect for you.
It is possible to increase your metabolism. Treating metabolic issues can lessen symptoms of depression, and in turn make it easier to lose weight. You can also try other methods of revving the metabolism, such as:
- Consuming more water
- Increasing your fiber intake
- Switching to organic foods
- Eating protein at every meal
- Drinking coffee or tea first thing in the morning
One thing you shouldn’t do while attempting to lose weight - Restrict your calories too much. This will actually cause your metabolism to slow, because the body will believe it’s starving. In “starvation mode” your body actually slows its metabolism as much as possible in an attempt to “save” itself from starvation. Your doctor can make a recommendation for a daily caloric intake that will allow you to lose weight while still getting all the nutrients that you need.
Depression and Appetite
The part of the brain that controls appetite is also the part of the brain that controls emotions such as depression. The limbic system, located beneath the cerebrum, contains the amygdala, which is the emotional center of the brain. It is also home to the cingulate gyrus, another part of the brain that connects smells and sights with pleasant memories.
Disturbances in the limbic system caused by depression may also cause us to reach for smells and sights with pleasant memories and feelings. Doesn’t that just shout “comfort food” to you? The limbic system may be partially to blame for why many people with depression reach for specific foods.
Depression affects the body's appetite control system. It can decrease appetite but is more likely to increase it.
Depression and Rising Cortisol Levels
Depression and the fight-or-flight reaction in the body go hand in hand. This reaction to perceived or real threats causes the body to release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is an appetite stimulant. Too much cortisol may lead to overeating. This means that when your body feels this fight or flight feeling caused by depression it may turn to food.
Depression and Stress
Stress may actually decrease the number of calories burned, a new study shows. In this study, women were given a 930 calorie meal and their blood was tested after the meal for blood sugar, insulin, triglycerides and cortisol. The study’s sponsors found women who reported stressful events the day prior to participation in the study burned 104 fewer calories than their stress-free counterparts.
The culprit may be higher insulin levels, which increases the rate at which the human body stores fat. Stress, anxiety and depression are all different sides of the same disorder, and increased stress hormones and insulin may be part of the reason people with depression gain weight and find it harder to lose weight.
Depression and Motivation
Depression is a multi-faced disease. One of the facets that contribute to weight gain is the feeling of tiredness and fatigue that many people with depression report. Fatigue and decreased energy are two signs of clinical depression. If you feel fatigued and tired, you’re less likely to be active. And if you’re less likely to be active, you burn fewer calories. This can lead to weight gain, as can these other symptoms:
- Depression is also a disease of isolation. People suffering from depression often do not feel like being social or interacting with others. Going to a gym, participating in sports, or joining other group activities that can burn calories may be very difficult for those with depression.
- Yet another symptom of depression is a loss of interest in hobbies or pastimes you once enjoyed. If you were an athlete in the past, you may find your motivation and interest in participating in sports has waned. It’s a symptom of the disease, but one that will also contribute to weight gain.
- Depression also directly affects drive in all areas, including levels the area of healthy eating. It’s hard to make healthy choices when you don’t feel well. Planning meals, cooking from scratch, and preparing wholesome, low-calorie meals can feel like climbing a mountain to someone with depression.
When you combine these three things — fatigue, difficulty engaging with others, and lack of motivation for healthy meal and snack preparation — it's no wonder it can be hard to lose weight with depression.
How to Lose Weight With Depression
There are a number of tips for losing weight with depression that can help you reach your goals. You’ve got to learn skills and techniques for overcoming the symptoms of depression that lead to weight gain while simultaneously tackling weight loss, which is hard enough on its own. It’s a tall order, but it is possible.
The first step when trying to lose weight when you have depression is to set a goal for yourself. This can be the number of pounds you’d like to lose or simply to improve your eating and exercise habits for a period of time. Goals should be:
- Measurable, so you can track your progress toward achieving them
- Realistic, so you won’t feel overwhelmed by an impossible task
One tool is to use the SMART goal setting tool. SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound. In other word, goals should be stated as specifically as possible, have a way to be measured, and realistic enough that you can achieve them. There should also be a time limit on the goals so you have the motivation to meet them.
Consider your goals for weight loss. You can use a measure of body mass index to determine a healthy weight for your height and bone structure or a body fat percentage. You can also use a dress or clothing size, a fitness objective or another goal, as long as it follows the guidelines of SMART, to establish your goal.
Setting both a long-term and a short-term goal is ideal. A long-term goal helps you keep your eye on your end-goal, while short-term ones enable you to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment as you achieve each step in the journey towards your long-term objective.
Step Two: Make a Plan for Weight Loss
Once you’ve decided on your goal, it’s time to make your plan. Although it’s tempting to want to keep your plan flexible, the more detailed you can get with it, the better. A detailed plan provides information on the exact steps you will take daily, weekly, and monthly in order to achieve both short and long-term objectives.
If your goal is to lose X number of pounds to reach a weight of Y, then what will you need to do to hit that goal? You may need to:
- Set aside time each week for meal planning and shopping for healthy foods.
- Go online and find healthy recipes
- Join a weight-loss program
- Start a food diary
- Record calories on a phone app
- Consider any other tasks to help you achieve your goal
Writing down the actions you need to do daily breaks big goals into manageable steps. It may seem overwhelming if you state a goal to lose 50 pounds, but when you break that into small things to do each day, it feels more manageable. Daily steps to lose 50 pounds may include eating three meals a day and no snacks for a total of 1,600 calories per day, logging your food into a journal or online app, and making sure you have healthy snacking choices on hand for times when cravings or hunger pangs hit.
This also makes it easier to stay on track when depression symptoms arise. Just stick with your plan.
Fitness is another area where big goals are easier to obtain when broken down into smaller steps. If your goal is to run three miles a day, start by deciding that you will walk or jog one mile a day for the first week, one and a quarter daily for the second week, and so on until you are up to three miles per day.
The Benefits of a Focused Plan for Weight Loss
Always write down your plan. It may seem easier to think through the steps mentally, but writing down your goals makes them seem more important to your subconscious. You need that focus when battling depression.
A study finds 92% of people never achieve their goals. The difference between the 8% and the 92% is that the 8%:
- Aligned short and long-term goals
- Leaned on trusted advisors or friends for help
- Used some type of feedback mechanism to track their progress
A written plan, with milestones and objectives at specific points to monitor your progress, can be a simple but effective way to stay motivated.
Step Three: Find Exercises You Enjoy to Help With Weight Loss
Weight loss is a combination of reduced caloric intake and increased energy expenditure. Exercise has been shown to ease symptoms of both depression and anxiety, so it should be a part of your plan. And while experts disagree about how much exercise you need daily, they all agree some form of physical exertion keeps everyone in better health mentally and physically.
The type of exercise you choose depends on your needs, interests, physical abilities and geographic location. Some people love the outdoors and are happiest walking the local trails, bicycling in the park, or running through their neighborhoods. Others love the water, and a trip to the pool or beach for a long swim is the best exercise to get them motivated to move.
If you enjoy socializing with people and find that group activities help to motivate you then you may consider joining an adult sports league. There are teams for adults interested in volleyball, basketball, softball, flag football and hockey, among many sports. Consider joining a gym if you prefer a structured environment of classes with friends or the challenge of using fitness equipment. Making an appointment with a friend to meet at the gym can also hold you accountable, even on the days you feel your worst depression symptoms.
Whatever you do, don’t be afraid to shake up your routine and mix strength training with flexibility, aerobic conditioning, or other forms of fitness. Even lacing up your sneakers and heading out into the neighborhood for a stroll around the block counts as exercise. Find something that’s fun for you and you’ll stick with your program.
Step Four: Remove Temptations
Temptations can thwart even the best plans and intentions. It’s important to remove as many as you can from your life so that it’s harder to deviate from your weight loss plan.
If you live alone, vow to keep sweets, foods and drinks you know you can’t control yourself around out of the house. That may be:
- Cakes or cookies
- Ice cream
- Salty snacks such as potato chips
- Alcoholic beverages
If you don’t bring them into your house, you won’t eat them when you arrive home after a stressful day at work.
People living with someone or with a family may find they cannot avoid temptation foods altogether. Your children may clamor for cookies, or your husband loves a bag of corn chips while watching a movie on the weekend. Designate a cupboard or pantry shelf as your “off limits” space and ask them to keep their special foods on that shelf. The shelf is off-limits to you, so you know anything on the shelf isn’t for you.
Find ways to divert your attention when cravings strike. Go for a walk, flip on a movie or music you love, or pick up a good book. Some people call a friend and “confess” their cravings so that they don’t give in to temptation. This so-called “telling on yourself” is a good way to nip the sneaky cravings in the bud when they threaten to derail your weight loss program.
Have a Plan for Restaurants
Lastly, when dining out, plan ahead of time what you’ll have to eat. Almost all chain restaurants post their menus, with calorie and nutrition content, on their websites. Local restaurants may post their menus online, too. Read the menus ahead of time and decide on what you want to eat so when you’re seated in the restaurant, you won’t let the aromas or sights of other diners’ meals distract you from your goal.
You can be politely assertive in restaurants, too, if you need to ask for special meals or meal preparation to maintain your program. Ask the server to hold the bread basket if bread is a temptation. It’s okay to request sauces, salad dressings and other condiments be served on the side so you can control your portion sizes. With a little planning, you can stay one step ahead of temptation in the weight loss game.
Step Five: Plan Rewards for Losing Weight
Trying to lose weight when you have depression can be challenging, but keeping your goals manageable, forming a reasonable and attainable action plan, and taking steps to care for yourself are all ways in which you can achieve your goal. And when you achieve your goals, it's time to pamper yourself. Plan no-calorie rewards that celebrate your triumphs.
Celebrating big goals is certainly laudable, but it’s also important to celebrate every milestone you achieve. Some people like to celebrate each five-pound weight loss with a small reward and a big reward for achieving their ultimate goal.
Examples of calorie-free rewards, both big and small, include:
- Tickets to a movie, play or concert you’ve always wanted to see.
- Buying new makeup or an accessory to complement your outfit.
- Buying yourself a bouquet of flowers.
- Giving yourself a spa day that includes a luxurious bath, mani-pedi and facial.
- Indulging your passion for a hobby by buying new equipment or supplies, like new paint brushes, yarn, fabric or golf clubs.
- Taking the day off work or bringing the kids to visit a museum, park or historical site you’ve always wanted to see.
- Starting a Pinterest board with outfits you love so that when you achieve your final weight goal you can buy them.
- Calling an old friend and making a date to go for a walk.
Your reward may be different, but the only rule is that it’s not food related and it feels like a treat. Indulge in a day off to go to the ball park or buy a book you’ve wanted to read. These and other rewards are great treats when you achieve your milestones and goals, and they can also help with your depression, giving you things to look forward to when you start to feel anxious or disconnected.
Weight Management and Depression: Your Journey Starts Now
Although losing weight with depression can be difficult, it’s not impossible. Reframing your thoughts around weight loss, understanding why and how depression contributes to weight gain, and making an action plan to compensate for the weight gain due to depression are all great ways to take control over this area of your life.
Sometimes, though, it can be hard to overcome something on your own. If you’re struggling with depression, anxiety or a combination of both, or if your weight struggles are making it harder for you to control your depression symptoms, it may be time to seek professional help.
Seeking Treatment for Depression
Brookhaven Retreat offers a compassionate, caring residential program for women seeking help with problems related to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, emotional trauma, addiction, and more. Located on 48 secluded acres in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, our comfortable facility has a scenic, natural beauty. Our women-only program provides you with comprehensive and professional care.
For those struggling with depression or another mental health disorder, it can be hard to manage your symptoms and change your life by yourself. Trying to cope all on your own with grief, loss, trauma and other issues can be difficult. At Brookhaven Retreat, you are not alone anymore.
Contact Brookhaven Retreat today and start your path to healing.