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Study Highlights Link Between Depressive Symptoms and Weight Gain

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A recent study by researchers at the University of Cambridge found a significant correlation between depressive symptoms and weight gain in adults, particularly in those with a higher body mass index (BMI). This groundbreaking longitudinal study, which tracked 2,133 UK adults over a period of 6–9 months during the Covid pandemic, provides new insights into the dynamic relationship between mental health and body weight. The findings were published in the journal PLOS One.

The study involved participants from the Fenland Covid app study, a subset of the larger population-based Fenland study. Participants were required to complete monthly assessments of their mental health and body weight using a mobile app. Mental health was evaluated through measures of depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, and stress levels.

To differentiate between general mental health trends and short-term fluctuations, the researchers categorised mental health measures into “between-individual” (the participant’s median score across all time points) and “within-individual” (the difference between the participant’s current score and their median). The study employed random intercept regression models to analyse the longitudinal associations of these mental health variables with subsequent weight changes.

The findings revealed a clear pattern: within-individual variations in depressive symptoms significantly predicted weight gain. Specifically, a deviation of one unit in depressive symptoms from an individual’s median score was associated with a weight increase of approximately 0.045 kg in the following month.

It’s interesting to note that baseline BMI moderated this effect. For individuals with a BMI under 25 kg/m², the fluctuation in depressive symptoms did not significantly predict weight changes. But for those classified as overweight or obese, the association was much stronger. Overweight individuals showed a weight increase of 0.052 kg per unit increase in depressive symptoms, while obese individuals showed an even higher increase of 0.071 kg per unit.

The study found no significant association between anxiety symptoms or stress levels and weight changes. This indicates that depressive symptoms specifically have a unique impact on weight gain, underscoring the importance of targeting depressive symptoms in weight management strategies.

The researchers suggest that weight management interventions could benefit from incorporating regular monitoring of depressive symptoms. By identifying and addressing increases in depressive symptoms early, it may be possible to prevent subsequent weight gain. This approach aligns with the concept of “just-in-time adaptive interventions”, which provide tailored support based on an individual’s changing status over time.

Moreover, the study highlights the importance of personalised interventions. General comparisons of depressive symptom levels across individuals may not be as effective as monitoring each individual’s fluctuations from their usual symptom levels. This personalised approach could lead to more effective prevention and treatment of weight gain, particularly in those already at risk due to higher BMI.

While the study provides valuable insights, the researchers caution that the findings should be interpreted as exploratory. The study’s observational design means that causality cannot be firmly established. Additionally, the effect sizes were small, indicating that while depressive symptoms do predict weight gain, the overall impact may be modest over short periods.

The study also relied on self-reported weight data, which could introduce bias. Future research should aim to replicate these findings using objective weight measurements and explore the potential causal pathways linking depressive symptoms and weight gain. Further investigation is also needed to understand how other factors, such as diet and physical activity, interact with mental health to influence weight.

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