Eating, Drinking, and Overthinking

A recent study shows that in young women, alcohol abuse, obesity and depression are creating a “toxic triangle.”

Reuters’ article Obesity, alcohol, depression linked in women clarifies the many research results of Dr. Carolyn A McCarty (of Seattle Children’s Research Institute). 

Ultimately, McCarty was able to show that almost half of men and women involved in the study suffered from at least one of the three problems between the ages of 21 to 30 however, this is probably only the tip of the iceberg though because “researchers used fairly stringent definitions of alcohol abuse, depression and obesity” for this particular study. While I can’t find the actual definitions used, I’m sure if they were broadened, researchers could see the rest of the iceberg.

Alcohol abuse is defined as: the continued use of alcohol despite the development of social, legal or health problems (quite broad, eh?)

Obesity is defined as: a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater, or about 30 pounds or more over ideal body weight

Depression is defined as: a state of low mood and aversion to activity (once again, very broad)

Within McCarty’s study, the participants have been followed since 1985 – while they were fifth graders. Looking at data collected at age 24, 27 and 30, McCarty’s researchers were able to look at the “interrelationships among depression, obesity and alcohol abuse” which showed:

  • at 21, 8% of women and 12% of men had at least two of the three problems
  • over time, having more than one of the problems became more common for women but less so for men
  • women who were depressed at 27 were more than three times as likely to meet criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence at age 30
  • women who had alcohol abuse problems at 24 were 4 times as likely to be obese at 27
  • women who were obese at 27 had more than double the risk of depression at age 30
  • lower-income individuals (no matter gender) were at greater risk of both depression and obesity

One of the traits that McCarty notes as a connection includes “ruminating coping” in which a person “replays and obsesses about negative events.” This is one of the issues addressed in cognitive behavioral therapy, as well. A Yale psychologist, Susan Nolen-Hoeksma shows that men and women who ruminate are more depressed, more likely to drink or more likely to binge eat in order to cope with their emotional problems.

Providing an intervention for these coping techniques seems relatively easy: incorporating physical exercise, mindfulness training and stress management. However, there are quite often obstacles in the way of coping – even for those not suffering from depression. The brain’s “reward system” seems to be clearly connected to the “toxic triangle” and implanting new ways of rewarding the self for good events (other than food or alcohol) is a coping method that needs to be integrated into each and every one of our lives.

Do you see this “toxic triangle” in your life?

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