Is Adolescent Weight Gain a Sign of Depression?

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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  • Don y

    December 13th, 2012 at 3:53 AM

    I would hate to jump the gun here, because I know that most adolescents gain some weight when their hormones begin to change. I really son’t know that I have seen many this age before who nhave not fluctuated a little with their weight.

    But most of the time that evens out. Now I would say that if it becomes an apparant problem and we start veering into the territory of obesity, then I would certainly seek some help. But if it looks like it’s just a little case of the growing pains, then I think that if you just let it play out them most of the time those things seem to moderate for themselves.

  • C Hembree

    December 13th, 2012 at 8:33 AM

    This study does seem to fly in the face of reason. I am 42 years old, and the majority of my women friends eat when they are sad, lonely, or stressed. They basically self-medicate in my opinion. At any rate, these exact same women also said they picked up the habit of eating as a form of comfort in their teen years. So, I’m not sure where this study is lacking, but everyone in my world seems to fall into the get sad, get fat category.

  • A King

    December 13th, 2012 at 8:36 AM

    I think C Hembree may be missing the boat a little on this one. Sadness, stress, and loneliness are not the same thing as depression. I believe this author is referring to a more chemical depression rather than a situational depression. In a chemical depression, the chemicals in the brain are “out of whack” if you will. In a situational depression, life’s circumstances get to you and feel sad, lonely, or stressed.

  • Laura

    December 13th, 2012 at 8:37 AM

    Adolescents is such a hard time in life. To experience weight gain as a teen for any reason? Unimaginable. Hopefully more studies like this can help our nation’s youth.


    December 13th, 2012 at 2:19 PM

    Depressed individuals and especially teens would tend to starve themselves and keep away from all things good.That would only result in weight loss.I don’t see how weight gain was considered a yardstick for depression.The cases of people bingeing in depression are few and even more so for teens who are all too happy to deny food with a passion.

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