12 February 2007

Diet, depression and obesity

Many people who are overweight suffer from depression because of their lack of self-esteem, frustration and feelings of helplessness. Are you one of them? Here's help.

Obesity and eating disorders are often associated with depression. Studies have shown that on the one hand people who are depressed may turn to food for comfort, while on the other hand, many individuals who are overweight suffer from depression because of their lack of self-esteem, frustration and feelings of helplessness.

Comfort food
People who are overweight or obese suffer from various degrees of depression and may turn to food for comfort. Certain foods have associations with more pleasant times or provide oral satisfaction.

Unfortunately the most ‘satisfying’ foods are usually those with high energy, fat and simple carbohydrate content, which can lead to further weight gain if consumed in large quantities. Individuals often get caught up in a vicious cycle of despair because they are obese. They then seek comfort in high-fat foods or energy-rich beverages, gain more weight and sink into even deeper depression. Many of these comfort foods also contain potentially 'addictive' ingredients, such as caffeine in cola drinks and serotonin, endorphins and phenylethylamine in chocolate.

Recent studies indicate that energy ingested in the form of sweetened cold drinks may be more fattening than eating foods with a similar energy content. The exact mechanism of how cold drinks contribute to excessive weight gain is not yet known, but people battling with obesity and depression should keep this in mind and cut down on their intake of sweetened beverages, particularly those that contain cola extracts.

Many people experience uncontrolled cravings for sweets and chocolate, which can make them feel desperate and depressed. In view of the above-mentioned chemicals, which are not only addictive, but also cause a ‘high, it is not surprising that depressed individuals crave chocolate to improve their mood.

One solution to these cravings is to ensure that you are eating a diet that is rich in carbohydrates. This will boost serotonin production in the brain and counteract feelings of depression.

To prevent weight gain when eating a high carbohydrate diet, it is essential to concentrate on those carbohydrates that have a low Glycaemic Index (GI) and/or high fibre content. Click on ‘Diet’ and ‘Weight loss’ and the ‘Right Approach’ to read about the GI and how you can select foods that don’t stimulate insulin resistance (one of the major causes of overweight), but rather increase serotonin levels in the brain and nervous system, and combat depression.

Obesity and antidepressants
Some antidepressants are associated with weight gain, while others may prevent additional gains and even lead to weight loss. Discuss the antidepressants you are taking with the prescribing doctor. If you find that you are gaining weight or struggling to lose weight while taking antidepressants, your doctor may be able to change the type of medication you are using, or decrease the dose.

Never stop taking medication such as antidepressants without consulting your doctor as this could be dangerous and plunge you into such a deep depression that you may harm yourself.

Eating disorders and depression
Patients with anorexia and/or bulimia are also often depressed. Once again these are reciprocal conditions, where depression can either lead to eating disorders or battling with anorexia and/or bulimia can cause depression.

If you are depressed by your self-perceived appearance and lack of self-confidence, the solution is not to start a starvation diet or purging. Seek professional help from a clinical psychologist, a psychiatrist or a dietician before you fall into the eating disorder trap.

Losing countless kilograms until you are skin and bone will not solve the underlying problem. You may think that you are in control of your life, but you are not. In addition, the nutrient deficiencies that invariably result from starvation diets or repeated vomiting or use of harsh laxatives and diuretics, may exacerbate your depression.

Amino acids, B-vitamins and iron, all help to keep the nervous system healthy. If you develop self-inflicted deficiencies of these nutrients, you will become even more depressed and listless. The answer is not to be even more strict with yourself, to eat even less, or to purge yourself even more harshly, but to get expert help so that you can come to grips with your underling psychological problems and start eating in a balanced way and take the necessary nutrient supplements.

Excess exercise
One of the less obvious manifestations of an eating disorder is excessive exercising. If you are exercising every day to the point of exhaustion to lose weight or ‘punish’ yourself, or expunge the ‘guilt’ you feel because you are ‘fat and ugly’ (even when you are already a walking skeleton), this may be due to underlying depression.

Exercise produces chemicals called endorphins in the body that can cause a ‘high’ and lift depression. Under normal circumstances, exercise can be a wonderful aid to slimming and counteracting depression, but if you are using exercise to lift your depression and have become hooked on the ‘high’ you generate, you need to consult a psychologist or psychiatrist. These experts will not only prescribe antidepressants, but also help you to address the underlying problems that are driving you to self-destruct and teach you less harmful coping skills.

If you are overweight or obese, or suffering from an eating disorder, with accompanying depression, seek help as soon as possible. You are the only one who can take a life-saving decision. Go for help and change your eating habits to either lose weight if you are obese, or to start eating a balanced diet, refrain from purging and stop excessive exercising if you are anorexia or bulimic. – (Dr I.V. van Heerden, DietDoc)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc


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