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Depression and Eating Disorders

An eating disorder is a mental health problem where you use food to deal with your emotions or to handle different situations. Instead of eating when you are hungry, you eat more or eat less depending on how you feel inside. It is a way of trying to control things in your life using food.1

Types of eating disorders

The most common types of eating disorders are:1,2

  • Bulimia: A loss of control over how much you eat, followed by extreme acts like throwing up or overexercising to get rid of calories
  • Anorexia nervosa: Trying to make yourself weigh less by not eating enough food, exercising too much, or doing both
  • Binge eating disorder (BED): Eating a lot of food until you feel very full and uncomfortable

If your symptoms do not precisely match the expected signs of these eating disorders, you may have a condition called other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED). OSFED makes up the highest percentage of eating disorders.1,3

Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is another type of eating disorder. It is where you:1

  • Avoid certain foods
  • Eat very little
  • Do both of the above

How depression and eating disorders are linked

Eating disorders, anxiety, and depression are all linked. One 2020 study showed women with depression and anxiety have higher rates of eating disorders. Among people in this study who had depression and anxiety, 13 percent had a lifelong eating disorder. Also, 39 percent engaged in at least 1 disordered eating behavior.4

In comparison, only 3 percent of women without depression and anxiety in this study had an eating disorder. Also, only 11 percent of this group engaged in disordered eating behaviors.4

Why are they connected?

Experts have a few theories about why such a strong link exists between depression and eating disorders. The first suggests that genes or life experiences make you more likely to develop depression. With depression, you feel bad about yourself and are more self-critical, leading to a failing self-image. This could make you more at risk of developing an eating disorder.5

The second theory is that your mental and emotional states, along with outside factors, play a role in the development of an eating disorder. In turn, having an eating disorder can then lead to depression.5

Studies also show having depression and anxiety along with an eating disorder leads to more severe symptoms. You are also less likely to recover. This is especially true for young women with these illnesses.6

The link between food and your brain

When you do not eat enough or get the nutrients you need, your brain does not work as it should. This imbalance in your brain chemistry can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety. How you treat your body, especially when it comes to your eating habits, has a direct impact on your emotional well-being.7

When you are feeling low or going through a tough time, you might crave food the most. It could be a conscious or unconscious act. The following states may prompt you to turn to food for comfort:8

  • Dealing with a challenging problem
  • Feeling stressed
  • Just being bored

In these states, food becomes a way to make yourself feel better, even if for a short while. So, when emotions are tough, using food for comfort becomes a common act. This points to the link between eating disorders and depression.8

This or That

When making treatment decisions, what do you do first?

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