Eating in response to feelings – rather than physical hunger – is common. It could be an extra couple of biscuits when you feel sad, or the whole packet. And for some people living with depression, this might happen regularly.

Now, new research suggests people who are already overweight or obese are even more likely to be affected by the link between depression and behaviours that can cause weight gain, like emotional or binge eating.

Academics from the University of Cambridge’s Medical Research Council(MRC) Epidemiology Unit examined data from 2,133 adults – tracking symptoms of depression, anxiety and perceived stress on an app, as well as weight measurements over six to nine months.

The research found that each time the score for depressive symptoms increased, the person’s weight one month later increased by an average of 45g. However, for those already within the ‘overweight’ BMI range, this average increase was 52g for each increased score of depressive symptoms, while for those with a BMI over 30 (classed as the obese range), it was 71g.

First author Dr Julia Mueller said her team “can’t draw any firm conclusions about what caused” the findings, as it was an observational study. But they “suggest that people may react to negative emotions in different ways”.

She added: “Some coping mechanisms for dealing with negative emotions might lead to weight gain, like eating more energy-dense foods, known as ’emotional eating’, whereas other coping mechanisms, like talking to a friend, would not lead to weight gain.

“The literature highlights that some people have a tendency to ’emotional eating’ whereas others do not. Why people differ in their eating behaviour is currently not quite clear, but it’s likely a combination of factors like genes, the environment, and early life experiences.”

So why does it happen?

BACP accredited therapist and eating disorder specialist Ruth Micallef, says: “Overeating, or binge eating, is a coping mechanism we subconsciously develop to help us deal with triggers and unprocessed trauma.

“Overeating and depression often go hand in hand, as similarly, depression is a symptom of unprocessed trauma, it is our brains and bodies going into a ‘freeze’ state when we feel unable to cope.”

And, importantly, it has “nothing to do with being lazy or greedy”, Micallef stresses. Like binge-drinking, over spending, gambling, using drugs, pornography, and even over working, overeating may allow us to temporarily ‘detach’ from our traumas by ‘self soothing’ with an often harmful activity. “We can we easily get stuck in ‘loops’ of using coping mechanisms which allow us to ‘detach and self soothe’,” she notes.

Lucy Myers, a registered BACP Psychotherapist and executive coach, says: “As human beings, we have a deep evolutionary instinct to survive difficult circumstances, meaning that when we feel sad, we will (unconsciously or otherwise) do anything we can to try to ‘feel better’ as quickly as possible.”

Eating, for some people, can provide a short-term solution, she added, even if we’re aware it’s not a healthy coping pattern.

“When you think about the symptoms of depression in particular, such as feelings of sadness, hopelessness, low self-esteem, lack of motivation and energy, and feeling irritable or intolerant of others, it often means people withdraw socially and spend time alone as their first coping mechanism. In these circumstances, food is a quick, easily accessible, affordable, legal, and socially acceptable way of ‘treating ourselves’,” Myers says.

“Food can feel like it’s helping to overcome emotional feelings of emptiness and loneliness because overeating can quite literally fill us up.”

Overeating can act as a distraction from feelings of sadness – “or anger, a lesser known symptom of depression, particularly noticeable in men” – she explains.

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“From a neuroscientific perspective, when we eat sugar or ‘junk food’, our brains release surges of dopamine, in a similar way to how our brains react to hard drugs such as cocaine, which can lead to addictive habits of overeating.”

Depression can also be linked to feelings of guilt and shame. “So if you find you’re eating in secret, hiding what or how much you’re eating, or avoiding social situations because of how you feel people will react, these may be signs to seek help to create new, physically and emotionally healthier ways of relating to food,” Myers adds.

Can therapy help?

As excessive behaviours are usually masking a deeper issue, if you tackle the root of the problem, the rest can hopefully follow.

“If don’t understand and process the original sources of distress and take steps to address these, the habits will supress and eventually exacerbate our original problems,” says Myers. “Therapy provides empathic, warm, and non-judgemental support, and stops people feeling isolated and alone, which is the first step to breaking the cycle of distressing behaviour you have found yourself in.”

From the outside, it might sound simple, but Myers stresses that these patterns of eating can be one of the hardest things to overcome.

“Unlike drinking, gambling or taking drugs, you can’t just quit – we need food to live, and it exists all around us every day,” she says. So, kindness and compassion – to yourself or others affected – is really necessary.

Excessive overeating may be a sign of binge eating disorder too, and a therapist can help you explore your relationship with food – “so that you make different decisions in the ‘here and now’ of your life today”, says Myers.

CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) is one method therapists use to help people understand their triggers and create new, healthier ways to respond in relation to food.

Micallef stresses: “You are absolutely worthy of support, and recovery is possible.”