According to the DSM-IV, weight gain and weight loss are both considered symptoms of depression. For adolescents, distinguishing between normal weight gain and symptomatic weight gain can be challenging. David A. Cole of the Department of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee wanted to take a closer look at how weight gain predicted depression in adolescents when compared to weight loss and decreased appetite. Cole was particularly curious about how other factors affected changes in weight during this developmental period. Specifically, hormonal changes and physiological shifts occur that can dramatically increase appetite and weight gain. Also, during adolescence, exercise decreases in general, and stress increases. These factors can also add to weight gain. Finally, it is not uncommon for teens, especially females, to engage in dieting behaviors that can result in further weight gain in the long run. Therefore, clarifying if weight gain is related to depression in teens, independent of these other factors, is important to ensure that young people are not being over-diagnosed or misdiagnosed.
Cole looked at data from more than 2,300 teens and children, nearly half of whom were clinically depressed. He found that in support of the DSM, decreased appetite and weight loss were linked to depression. However, in contrast to the DSM, weight gain was not. In fact, increased appetite and weight gain in this sample did not show any relationship to depressive symptoms or the likelihood of becoming depressed. “In child and adolescent populations, these results call into question the utility of weight gain and increased appetite as indicators of depression,” Cole said.
Cole believes that his study raises questions about the presence of depression in children who have not yet reached puberty, which suggests that girls are overrepresented in preadolescent samples. Future research should delve further into this issue and also consider how medication and comorbidity—in particular, the presence of bipolar—affect weight gain as a symptom of depression. Until then, Cole believes that weight gain and increased appetite should not be viewed as highly symptomatic of adolescent depression.
Cole, David A., Sun-Joo Cho, Nina C. Martin, Eric A. Youngstrom, John S. March, Robert L. Findling, Bruce E. Compas, Ian M. Goodyer, Paul Rohde, Myrna Weissman, Marilyn J. Essex, Janet S. Hyde, John F. Curry, Rex Forehand, Marcia J. Slattery, Julia W. Felton, and Melissa A. Maxwell. Are increased weight and appetite useful indicators of depression in children and adolescents? Journal of Abnormal Psychology 121.4 (2012): 838-51. Print.
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