Understanding the Connection Between Depression and Eating Disorders

Woman struggling with eating disorder during COVID-19

Contributor: Staff at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

The hopelessness that comes with depression can make living with an eating disorder quite challenging. But when you lessen the depressive symptoms you are struggling with, you are much more likely to start experiencing success in your struggle with depression and eating disorders.

Connecting Depression and Eating Disorders

Many people who are suffering from an eating disorder also struggle with co-occurring depression. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) reports that up to 50% of people who seek treatment for anorexia nervosa also suffer from co-occurring depression, while more than 50% of people who seek treatment for bulimia nervosa or binge-eating disorder live with co-occurring depression.

The relationship between depression and eating disorders is complex because depression can cause a person to struggle with unhealthy eating patterns while eating disorders can lead to feelings of depression. For women who have developed an eating disorder that co-occurs with depression, these overlapping symptoms can lead to a destructive cycle of disordered eating and feelings of hopelessness that can make recovery that much harder.

Each person experiences the impact of these challenges differently. But recognizing the connection between eating disorders and co-occurring depression can make a significant difference in your health.

Benefits of Treating Depressive Symptoms

Research shows that when someone is suffering from an eating disorder that co-occurs with depression, helping them decrease their depressive symptoms can positively affect their eating disorder recovery. In a study of 31 women ages 19-50 who had bulimia nervosa and co-occurring depression, researchers found that many of the women’s bulimic symptoms began to improve when their care team helped them reduce their depressive symptoms through therapy.

As a part of the study, the women took part in 16 weeks of interpersonal psychotherapy aimed at helping them process the overwhelming feelings and stress they were experiencing and alleviating the hopelessness and worthlessness associated with depression. The researchers found that, when a woman’s depressive symptoms started to decrease, so did her eating disorder symptoms. By the end of treatment, 77% of the participants saw improvement in their bulimic symptoms, while 34% saw improvement in their symptoms for both conditions.

Although the connection between eating disorders and co-occurring depression remains complex, there are benefits to focusing on depressive symptoms in the initial stages of treatment for some women. If you are considering finding eating disorder treatment, it’s essential that you complete a detailed assessment that identifies every condition you may be facing. This ensures you get the comprehensive treatment that supports you as a whole person.

Treatment Options for Depression and Eating Disorders

Young Lady in Group therapy after dealing with Depression and Eating DisordersThere are many different treatment options for women who are living with both an eating disorder and coexisting depression. Because every woman has different life experiences that affect the way these conditions impact her, it’s essential to find the type and level of treatment that best fit your needs.

There are various levels of care that can help you start the recovery process, depending on the nature and severity of your symptoms. Some of them include:

  • Residential treatment – This level of care involves staying at a treatment facility overnight, usually for about 28–30 days, depending on your individual needs and progress, so you can receive round-the-clock support to help you manage the overwhelming emotions and compulsions associated with depression and an eating disorder.
  • Partial hospitalization program (PHP) – Also known as day treatment, a PHP allows you to take part in therapy for several hours a day, multiple days a week. You do not stay overnight, but this level of care offers more structured support than you’d receive in traditional outpatient therapy.

Some facilities may also provide intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) and traditional outpatient therapy, which can be beneficial if you don’t need as much structure throughout the treatment process. The common types of therapies used to treat eating disorders that co-occur with depression include:

  • Individual therapy – Meeting one-on-one with a therapist allows you to discuss your recovery progress, any barriers you may have encountered during treatment, and your short- and long-term treatment goals.
  • Group therapy – Group sessions offer a chance for you to hear the diverse perspectives of other participants and to grow your support system. Many people who participate in group therapy also report feeling less alone in their recovery and learn to build healthier relationships in these sessions.

It’s important to recognize just how individual the healing process is. If you’re struggling with multiple conditions, reach out for professional help so that you can get an assessment to determine the type and level of care that’s the right fit for you.


Bäck, M., Falkenström, F., Gustafsson, S., Andersson, G., & Holmqvist, R. (2020). Reduction in depressive symptoms predicts improvement in eating disorder symptoms in interpersonal psychotherapy: results from a naturalistic study. Journal of Eating Disorders. 8, 33. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-020-00308-1.

National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders. (2020). Eating Disorder Statistics. Retrieved from: https://anad.org/education-and-awareness/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/.

About Our Sponsor:

At Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center outside of Chicago, Illinois, we provide specialized care for women and adolescent girls who are living with eating disorders.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published August 4, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on August 4, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC