Psychological Medicine

Original Articles

Obese youths are not more likely to become depressed, but depressed youths are more likely to become obese

R. E. Robertsa1 c1 and H. T. Duonga1

a1 Division of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences, UTHealth, School of Public Health, University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston, TX, USA


Background Overweight/obesity and depression are both major public health problems among adolescents. However, the question of a link between overweight/obesity and depression remains unresolved in this age group. We examined whether obesity increases risk of depression, or depression increases risk of obesity, or whether there is a reciprocal effect.

Method A two-wave prospective cohort study of adolescents aged 11–17 years at baseline (n = 4175) followed up a year later (n = 3134) sampled from the Houston metropolitan area. Overweight was defined as 95th percentile >body mass index (BMI) ≤85th percentile and obese as BMI >95th percentile. Three indicators of depression were examined: any DSM-IV mood disorder, major depression, and symptoms of depression.

Results Data for the two-wave cohort indicated no evidence of reciprocal effects between weight and depression. Weight status predicted neither major depression nor depressive symptoms. However, mood disorders generally and major depression in particular increased risk of future obesity more than twofold. Depressed males had a sixfold increased risk of obesity. Females with depressive symptoms had a marginally increased risk of being overweight but not obese.

Conclusions Our findings, combined with those of recent meta-analyses, suggest that obese youths are not more likely to become depressed but that depressed youths are more likely to become obese.

(Received June 25 2012)

(Revised October 21 2012)

(Accepted November 28 2012)

(Online publication January 09 2013)

Key words

  • Adolescents;
  • depression;
  • epidemiology;
  • obesity