Bad Appetite

The social, psychological, and biological drivers of appetite.

Eat Up, Sad Clown...

How feeling sad can mess with your appetite.

Did anyone else see Melancholia, the new Lars Von Trier film? In one scene Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a depressed young woman, is given meatloaf, her favorite meal, by her sister. She smiles when she smells it - then begins to weep at the first bite. "It tastes like ashes," she says.

Justine's sadness is particularly severe, but all of us are familiar with the routine breeds of melancholy triggered by life's standard litany of losses and triggers for grief. And what's interesting (at least to us appetite researchers) is that the effects on our eating behavior are far from predictable.

Imagine a close relationship ending, for example. It's tragic, it's gut-wrenching, you can't think about anything else. But are you most likely to a) curl into a little ball and forget to eat, or b) drown your sorrows in a pint of strawberry gelato with chocolate sauce?

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There are reasons to think that you might say (a).

One of the hallmarks of major depression, after all, is an absence of motivation and the ability to experience pleasure, and this often includes a marked loss in appetite. Some people even think that depression could blunt your physiological taste sensitivity - this would certainly help to explain Dunst's disproportionate response to her dinner.

However, there's also a substantial amount of evidence to suggest you may be more likely to pick (b).

Like the fact that depression is often treatable by serotonin-boosting drugs which may (or may not) indicate a causal role for serotonin in depression, while animal studies show that low serotonin levels lead to increased intake. And the finding that depression is related to obesity in humans (although a recent meta-analysis suggests that obesity might cause depression more often than the other way around...)

What can we conclude?

Every person and every situation is different. So the key to maintaining your body weight in the face of adversity is probably to recognize your tendencies and protect yourself accordingly.

More of an (a) person? Make sure that what you do manage to force down is high enough in calories and nutrients to get you through your down-time without wasting away.

More inclined toward (b)? There may be better methods than sour cream and chive Pringles to boost your mood. Like this website, for example.

And of course, as with many things in life, the answer for many people may actually be c) all of the above. First, the crying, next, the comfort-eating.

For these, and in fact all individuals who are feeling a bit gloomy, I recommend the following course of action: 1) have a really good cry, 2) read this book, 3) buy this song from your favorite internet music source in preparation for when things start looking up.

(And if you're going through a break-up then don't forget to wedge in these extra steps: a) listen to this on repeat, then b) write/co-write your own version. You may still feel miserable afterwards but I absolutely promise you one thing: you will no longer feel alone.)

 

Susan Carnell, Ph.D., is a research psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, where she studies what drives some people toward obesity.

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