Obesity links to depression and anxiety in University of Newcastle research

Tracy Burrows is examining food addiction. Picture: Marina Neil

Tracy Burrows is examining food addiction. Picture: Marina Neil

The rise in cases of obesity and mental illness has coincided, suggesting the two may be linked, a University of Newcastle researcher says.

“There is substantial overlap between addictive eating with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression,” Associate Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics Tracy Burrows said.

Dr Burrows said mental-health disorders including depression and disordered eating had been linked to obesity.

“The link between the conditions needs further explanation, as it’s likely to be a two-way relationship.” For some people, depression may lead to increased weight and vice versa. “This might then have a spiralling effect,” she said.

Dr Burrows’ comments come as her team of researchers develop an online program to help people deal with food addiction. The program aims to give people coping skills to reduce the amount of food they eat.

It’s a collaboration between University of Newcastle, Hunter Medical Research Institute and University of Queensland. Dr Burrows’ team has reviewed treatments for addictive eating.

Evidence-based programs run by qualified health professionals were found to be scarce. As such, the team moved to develop and trial its own program, using dietitians, psychologists, neuroscientists, occupational therapists and health researchers.

Research has shown that about 20 per cent of people have a food addiction. The symptoms include cravings, withdrawals and repeated attempts to cut down or quit certain foods. 

“It also has similarities with behavioural addictions such as gambling,” she said. 

“Neuroimaging studies have shown that junk foods as well as beverages increase dopamine levels in reward pathways.”

Consumption of these foods over time may cause a reduction in dopamine activity.

These changes were thought to explain the emergence of symptoms of food addiction, including withdrawal and tolerance. “In some individuals, this may lead to the over-consumption of specific foods in order to achieve the same rewarding effect,” she said.

Many diet and exercise plans for this condition fail because they don’t address the underlying psychological causes.