Child and Adolescent Depression Can Lead to Obesity

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Raising daughters? Then you’re all too familiar with their fixation with belly-baring pop stars and body image. You can certainly provide reassurance and help them eat nutritious organic food. But if your daughter becomes depressed, she may be at risk of developing a higher body mass index (BMI)—the measurement doctors use to determine obesity.

According to a study in this month’s Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, depression and anxiety disorders during childhood may be associated with a higher BMI into adulthood for women (but not men). The increasing prevalence of obesity among children and adults has become a public health crisis. Understanding the social and psychological conditions associated with obesity could help predict which children and adolescents are likely to become obese adults—something that will help physicians target treatment and prevention efforts. Previous evidence suggests psychological disorders may be one factor associated with weight gain, but studies have been limited.

Sarah E. Anderson, MS, and her colleagues at Tufts University in Boston recently evaluated the association between anxiety disorders/depression and weight gain from childhood into adulthood. The 820 individuals (403 women, 417 men—ages 9 to 18 at the beginning of the study, 28 to 40 at their most recent evaluation) were assessed four times between 1983 and 2003. At each assessment, researchers interviewed participants to determine whether they met clinical criteria for anxiety disorders or depression. The authors calculated BMI, adjusting it for age and gender based on national reference data.

During the study, 310 participants (119 men, 191 women) had anxiety disorders, and 148 (50 men, 98 women) were depressed. Women with anxiety disorders and depression had a significantly higher BMI. The earlier the onset of depression, the higher the woman’s adult weight. “An average-height woman diagnosed with depression at age 14 would weigh about 10 to 16 pounds more than a non-depressed woman by the time both reached age 30 years,” the authors write.

Depression during childhood was associated with an initially lower BMI among boys, but the weight difference in depressed and non-depressed men disappeared over time. Anxiety disorders did not appear to be linked to men’s BMIs at any point throughout the study.

Treating anxiety and depression in girls and women may be one strategy in the battle against obesity, the authors conclude. If your child or teenager is depressed, be sure to seek counseling.

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