Women Who Eat Ultra-Processed Foods Are More Likely to Be Depressed, Study Finds

Foods with artificial sweeteners were found to have the highest link to depression.

Ice cream, soda, chips, donuts—whatever it may be, we all have comfort foods that we indulge in from time to time. And while it's important to treat ourselves every once in a while, it's equally as crucial that, for the most part, we maintain a balanced diet full of nutrient-dense foods. This entails staying away from ultra-processed foods, as they have been linked to health ailments such as heart disease, diabetes, and unhealthy weight gain.

Now, unfortunately, researchers have added depression to that list, thanks to a new study finding a link between ultra-processed foods and this mental health condition. Here's everything you need to know.

<p>5second/Getty Images</p>

5second/Getty Images

What Happened In The Study?

From 2003 to 2017, researchers at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital observed the eating habits and mental health changes of over 31,000 mostly white non-Hispanic women aged 42 to 62 years. Results from the study, first published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, concluded that women who ate high amounts of ultra-processed foods, particularly foods containing artificial sweeteners, had an increased risk of depression compared to women who ate lower amounts of the variable.

At the beginning of the study, all of the women had reported that they were free of depression. Every four years, participants were asked to take a survey in which they were asked about their diet and mental health. Researchers then examined the relationship between food and depression levels, while taking into account other factors of the mental health condition such as age, total caloric intake, body mass index, physical activity, smoking status, menopausal hormone therapy, total energy intake, alcohol, comorbidities, median family income, social network levels, marital status, sleep duration, and pain.

""These findings suggest that greater ultra-processed food intake, particularly artificial sweeteners and artificially sweetened beverages, is associated with increased risk of depression.""

the authors of the study

Researchers acknowledged that the results of this study aren't all-encompassing and that the data doesn't necessarily mean that eating these foods is the cause of depression. Instead, they proposed many possible theories of the link between the two, including the idea that depression and ultra-processed foods feed off each other. If someone is depressed, they may turn to ultra-processed foods for comfort, while the food may contribute to poor mood and health.

What Foods Count As "Ultra-Processed?"

Processed food is any agricultural product that has been changed from its original state, like baby carrots or tofu. Ultra-processed food takes that principle a step further, and includes "snacks, drinks, ready meals and many other products created mostly or entirely from substances extracted from foods." The key difference is that processed foods aren't always unhealthy, while ultra-processed foods are.

If you look at the ingredients list of any ultra-processed foods, you'll likely find a long list of unfamiliar words. This list may include numerous added ingredients such as sugar, salt, fat, artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives, as well as starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats. Examples of foods that contain these ingredients include:

  • Sodas

  • Processed meats

  • White breads

  • Candy

  • Ice cream

  • Donuts

  • Sugary cereals

  • Cookies

  • Potato chips

Why Is Ultraprocessed Food Linked to Depression?

Researchers are still unsure of exactly why ultra-processed foods are linked to depression, however, they are theorizing that the ultra-processed foods cause the brain to release neurotransmitters that are also released in depression. "Although the mechanism associating ultra-processed foods to depression is unknown, recent experimental data suggests that artificial sweeteners elicit purinergic transmission in the brain, which may be involved in the etiopathogenesis of depression," they wrote in the study.

Which Foods Should I Be Eating?

For years, doctors have emphasized the benefits of eating a diet full of good-quality proteins, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, and hearty whole grains. These include foods like:

  • Lean meats like chicken and turkey breast

  • Seafoods like salmon, tuna, and shrimp

  • Leafy greens like spinach, kale, and arugula

  • Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower

  • Whole grains like quinoa, sprouted bread, and brown rice

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