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Most of us have seen the stories on the news about the increasing problem of obesity in American children. Although both are considered adult conditions, both childhood obesity and depression are occurring more frequently in America’s youth. While evidence has shown that there’s a strong connection between obesity and depression in children, there is no definitive answer as to which condition is most likely to cause the other or if one of them is to blame for the other.

What experts do recognize is that each is a serious condition that requires treatment. However, the complexity of the relationship between the two conditions makes it difficult to find effective treatments for both the obesity and depression.

According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination, 17% of youths between the ages of 2 and 19 years are overweight compared to 12% just a few decades ago.  The prevalence of major depressive disorder also occurs in an estimated 8% of youths with the highest percentage occurring in adolescents who are 13 years of age or older. While boys up to 10 years of age seem to be more prone to depression, girls far exceed the number of boys who are depressed by the age of 16 years.

Making the Connection

In cases where children are suffering with both childhood obesity and depression, the obesity is generally considered to be the underlying cause for the depression. However, while the standard approach may be to treat the obesity, with the belief that the depression will dissipate along with the extra pounds, this is not a solution that works for every child.

Although the two conditions frequently occur together, it is difficult to determine if one causes the other and if so, in which order. Even though being overweight can lead to depression, there are many cases where depression is the primary condition.  In these cases, the child’s lack of energy and intense stress has caused the obesity to develop. This is why treatment that focuses on the obesity is ineffective for the depression.

Some experts also believe that there are underlying causes that may be equally responsible for both childhood obesity and depression. One of these causes may be genetics, as it’s a well-known fact that depression often runs in families. Neuroendocrine-related factors may also be the cause of both conditions. The HPA axis which releases cortisol during stress also causes the deposit of fat in the abdominal area.  The abnormal functioning of the system that maintains the levels of this hormone has been linked to obesity and depression, as well as behavioral disorders.

In addition to the concerns about the direct effects of obesity and depression on children, there are also some clear indications that other health problems are likely to arise in these individuals when they reach adulthood. The Surgeon General has issued reports that highlight both childhood obesity and depression as major public health issues.  This is due to their potential for psychological scars that might make them more vulnerable to various problems in adulthood.

Complications in Diagnosis

While obesity in children is easy to recognize, depression can present more of a challenge. It is not uncommon for depressive symptoms to be dismissed as “going through a phase” or as a normal reaction to stress or loss.

Many people don’t consider depression to be a childhood condition.  As a result, they may not recognize that a child is depressed simply because they don’t even think of it as a possible explanation for their symptoms.  Also, children may exhibit signs of depression differently than adults. Some of the most common symptoms of depression in children are:

  • Frequent crying
  • Loss of interest in activities they normally enjoy
  • Low self-esteem
  • Overreaction to failure
  • Irritability, anger, and hostility
  • Physical complaints including headaches and stomach aches
  • Poor concentration
  • Lack of energy
  • Talk of hurting or killing themselves
  • Changes in appetite or sleeping

Treating Obesity and Depression

Treating childhood obesity and depression is often a challenge.  This may be due to the assumption that the obesity is causing the depression – even though there may be other reasons for it. Instead of regarding the two conditions as a case of cause-and-effect, looking at them separately but simultaneously may produce the most effective results.

Obesity

Children who are obese are often treated with a common sense approach that includes a healthy diet and daily exercise. Increasing their activity level can be difficult when they are suffering from depression and have no motivation or energy. Treating their depression separately at the same time will help them develop the stamina and desire to be more physically active.  This approach may help prevent a child from becoming one of the increasing numbers of children who are resorting to bariatric surgery and other extreme measures in order to lose weight.

Some of the potential risks associated with obesity make it imperative to address the child’s weight problems early on. While depression increases a child’s risk for other psychological problems, including behavioral issues and learning disabilities, obesity can also lead to serious health issues.  These include type 2 diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea, orthopedic complications, and asthma. Obese children typically turn into obese adults who are at an increased risk for an array of emotional and physical problems. Dealing with the condition while they are still children can help them become healthier and happier adults.

Depression

The treatment options for children with depression are similar to those used for adults.  They include both psychotherapy and medication. One or the other may be used alone or they may be combined, depending on the age and condition of the child. Many feel that a combination of therapy and medication produces the best results. Some professionals prefer to use Prozac for depressed children.  This is because it is FDA-approved to treat children as young as 8 years of age and has a proven track record of effectiveness.

However, caution must always be used when prescribing antidepressants to children and adolescents.  In some cases, they may cause or increase suicidal thoughts.

Addressing Childhood Obesity and Depression

Although there are differing beliefs about the connection between childhood obesity and depression, there are circumstances where the depression is caused by the child’s negative body image. With the increasing exposure to unrealistic body types in the media, children have an unrealistic expectation of how they should look. Teenage girls, in particular, are at risk of feeling insecure about their bodies and may develop depression because of their inability to be as thin or as pretty as the celebrities and models they see in magazines and on TV.

All parents should take their child’s weight condition seriously and discuss it with their pediatrician. Teaching children to get regular exercise and make healthy food choices when they are young can help tremendously in preventing obesity. Children should also be examined to rule out any health conditions that can cause them to be overweight, especially if they are eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise.

Although it’s not uncommon for childhood obesity and depression to occur together, it is essential that parents take symptoms of either condition very seriously. Not only are both conditions serious on their own accord, the combination of childhood obesity and depression significantly increases the potential for developing other conditions down the road that can be deadly.

Sources:

(1)  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2568994/

http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200305/the-obesity-depression-link

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