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Is there a Link Between Childhood Obesity and Depression?

written by: Nicholas Kuvaas • edited by: Emma Lloyd • updated: 8/20/2010

Rates of childhood obesity and depression have risen steadily over the past 30 years, leading some experts to wonder whether depression problems for child obesity are somehow related. Does a link between the two exist and does one precede the other?

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    A Link Between Childhood Obesity and Depression

    Obesity rates have increased significantly over the last 30 years, and this rise has also been observed in children and adolescents. At the same time, the depression rates among children and adolescents are troubling mental health professionals who once thought that children could not become depressed. As these trends have increased together, experts believe there is a link between depression problems and childhood obesity.

    Of school aged children, 2% of them suffer from depression while 8% of adolescents suffer from depression1. The rates of obesity among children are much higher with 19.6% of 5-11 year olds and 18.1% of 12-19 falling in the range of obesity2. Often, the two conditions will coincide with each other, but this percentage has not been estimated for the population. Theories have been presented to explain their co-morbidity, but it seems to be a case of direction.

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    Depression Problems for Child Obesity

    Dr. Sarah Mustillo has stated that she believes stress from depression releases a hormone called cortisol which causes the body to easily gain fat weight around the abdomen, but this doesn’t explain the disparity between the rates of depression and obesity among children3. Studies concerning obese children found them to have a lower quality of life similar to cancer patients. These children also miss significantly more days of school than their average weight peers and are less able to participate in physical activity. This may result in shame and ridicule.

    A study by Sjoberg, Nillson, and Leppert (2005) found a strong correlation between adolescent obesity and depression4. When they accounted for shame, parental separation, and parental unemployment, this correlation went away. The study also says that obese adolescents were often the subject of ridicule leading to shame which suggests that obesity precedes depression again, but the evidence can’t fully support that conclusion. However, solving this problem is another issue entirely.

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    Treatments for Child Obesity and Depression

    Obesity among children is defined as being the 95th percentile or higher for their age on standard growth charts for children. This excess weight may be fat weight, but it is not a certainty. Children and adolescents are still growing, and no one wants to hinder this process making treatment difficult. Plus, few treatments address both the depression and the issue of weight. A treatment that could help both causes is cognitive behavior therapy which is an effective treatment against depression, but it also encourages exercise and the reduction of sedentary behavior5. Exercise can help to maintain weight and sometimes to lose it6. Anti-depressants may also be prescribed to alleviate the depression, but there is debate if these are as effective for youth5.

    Another approach would be to treat the two separately. A combination of therapy and anti-depressants could be used to treat the depression, while a behavioral intervention is used to treat obesity through exercise and dietary changes. As always, it is best to prevent obesity through exercise and a proper diet high in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables but low in processed foods and red meat.

    In conclusion, rates of obesity and depression among youth are surprisingly high and there appears to be a link between the two. It is speculative, but it appears that obesity precedes depression. Still, the evidence is not strong enough to verify this result. Treatment is also difficult, but cognitive behavior therapy is an effective treatment strategy especially if it is combined with anti-depressants and dietary changes.