Jessica’s previous research, alongside supervisors Dr Sue Thomas, Dr Theresa Larkin and Professor Chao Deng, showed that many people with depression overeat.

This may explain why people with depression are at risk of health problems, such as weight gain. While it is common belief that overeating may be emotionally driven, the team’s previous work has shown that hormones in the blood relate to depressive overeating.

The new study included 80 people with depression and 60 without depression. Researchers examined several types of overeating patterns, including emotional eating and food addiction.

Food addiction refers to excess eating and loss of control around highly palatable foods: those that have been modified to contain high levels of fat, sugar or salt. The study found that a high proportion of people with depression, mostly females, met the criteria for food addiction, and that these behaviours were linked to the hormone dopamine.

“In the brain, dopamine is linked to reward, pleasure and addiction. However, it was not previously known whether dopamine levels circulating in the body are related to overeating or changes in weight or appetite in depression. We were able to measure dopamine blood, and compare those levels with body mass index and eating habits of individuals with and without depression,” said Ms. Mills.

 “As we found in previous research with other hormones, dopamine was related to overeating behaviours in depression. Emotional eating and food addiction, and the relationships between dopamine, overeating and depressive symptoms were different in males and females. This suggests that preventative measures and treatments for weight gain in depression may need to be tailored by sex.”

She also said there has been resistance to label overeating as an addiction.  

“The term ‘food addiction’ is still contentious. There are similar behaviours like cravings and withdrawals, as seen in other addictions. The problem is that you need to eat food to survive, whereas you don’t necessarily need drugs or alcohol,” said Ms. Mills.

This study could change the way people think of overeating in depression, and the concept of food addiction.

“There are popular beliefs that overeating in depression is psychological, however there is growing evidence through our studies that it is linked to hormonal processes,” said Ms. Mills.

Ms. Mills hopes that this research may guide the development of more effective interventions to prevent weight gain in people with depression.

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