12 September 2023

When a sweet treat turns into a serious problem: UOW researcher explores impact of mental health on overeating

| Keeli Royle
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Woman taking four donuts out of the fridge at night.

UOW research could determine the dangers of relying on food as a coping mechanism. Photo: File.

Reaching for a tub of ice cream or block of chocolate at the end of an emotional or stressful day may seem like an easy solution to help take the edge off, but local researchers have now found that this seemingly harmless coping mechanism could in fact have some serious implications for your health and wellbeing or even lead to lifelong consequences.

Dr Jessica Bartschi from the University of Wollongong has been exploring the extremely complex impacts of mental health on appetite for years and said there are still common misconceptions about the eating habits of someone with depression.

“Depression is traditionally thought of as being this withdrawn, appetite loss kind of presentation but more and more people, in fact almost half the people with depression now are reporting appetite gain,” Dr Bartschi said. “They’re gaining weight as a result of feeling sad and then they long-term develop health problems like obesity, metabolic syndrome, heart problems and are experiencing significant morbidity and mortality.”

She said that high-sugar foods can actually have a physical effect on the body’s stress response and make you feel better, but it can become problematic if it is repeatedly used as a coping mechanism.

“As a result of doing that once or twice, you learn that when I’m stressed or sad, if I just have the doughnut or whatever the case is, then I feel better because of it and then it becomes a learned response,” Dr Bartschi said.

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“Over time the more that you do it every time you feel sad it means the more you eat and as a result of that eating, long term and repeatedly that does lead to weight gain and that puts you on that trajectory for those health complications.”

Her research explores the various elements that influence the fairly new concepts of overeating within the mental health space, to better target the reasons behind it and implement strategies for early intervention.

“About 25 to 30 per cent of people with depression will actually form a dependence on these high sugar and fat foods and then that almost becomes an addiction of sorts,” she said.

“And we need to understand why it becomes a coping mechanism in the first place and how can we help you refrain the relationship with the food so that it goes back to a treat or sometimes food rather than being a crutch.”

Dr Jessica Bartschi at UOW.

UOW’s Dr Jessica Bartschi is exploring the causes of overeating and food addiction in people with depression. Photo: Keeli Royle.

And while research into these areas is starting to ramp up, the situation is actually getting worse.

“Unfortunately the prevalence of these eating behaviours is increasing all the time and that’s because high palatable foods, so the foods that are highest in sugar, carbs, fats and that sort of thing, are becoming so much more accessible these days,” Dr Bartschi said.

“They’re becoming much more convenient and especially in the current cost of living situation, it’s becoming easier to get something cheap and not particularly good for you.”

But if you’ve found yourself craving that sugar hit on occasion, it doesn’t mean it’s something to be alarmed about.

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And Dr Bartschi said these scenarios need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

“Let’s say you have a doughnut every day to cope with stress, for you, under those circumstances, that may be cause for concern but for somebody else it might be completely different,” she said. “There really has to be that in-depth personalised assessment of what you’re going through at this particular point in time to find out if is this a problem for you.

“It is a very context-dependent thing, so if anyone is concerned about their eating behaviour being connected to their mood or anything like that the first stop really should be to go and speak to their GP.”

She is now seeking 500 volunteers to complete a 30-minute survey to help the latest investigation into this area.

“The current study that we’re running is looking a bit more deeply at those psychosocial factors so looking at things like self-esteem, body image, optimism and social support as well.”

To get involved or find out more, visit the survey website.

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