Ultra-processed Foods, Sweeteners Linked to Depression

In our modern lives, it can be hard to avoid ultra-processed foods. Artificial sweeteners are common in many things, especially drinks. But a new study has found that ultra-processed foods — especially those containing artificial sweeteners — may heighten the risk of developing depression. Ultra-processed foods have already been linked to cancer, obesity and blood sugar concerns. We always recommend staying away from them. But it can be hard to do so when they are so prevalent.

Artificial sweeteners are a cornerstone in low-carb baking. In our recipe blogs, we always say that desserts are a treat, not a daily food. But it’s tough to avoid artificial sweeteners for people with blood sugar concerns.

The study used almost 32,000 middle-aged women, assessing the quality of their diet every four years from 2003 to 2017. They were sorted into five groups by how much ultra-processed food they ate. Then, the researchers looked at the number of people who were depressed. They used two definitions of depression — a clinical diagnosis and antidepressant use or a looser definition that included diagnoses or antidepressant use.  

In the study, there were 2,122 cases of depression according to the strict definition. Women who ate the most ultra-processed food were 50 percent more likely to be depressed than women who are the least.  

Some flaws in this study are obvious. First, the study only included women between the ages of 42 and 62, who were almost all white. But, also, the study didn’t question which came first — the diet or the depression. Yes, there seems to be a link, but it could be that depressed people reach for the easiest foods available, and that’s all ultra-processed. People who ate the most ultra-processed food were also more likely to smoke, be obese or be sedentary — all of which are risk factors for depression.  

Andrew Chan, a professor at Harvard Medical School and one of the study’s authors, said it’s a “classic chicken vs. the egg problem.”

The study shouldn’t be discounted despite the uncertainty around it. The microbiome plays a significant role in the brain. Eating ultra-processed damages the microbiome so it could be that eating meal after meal from the frozen section harms the microbes in the gut. Ultra-processed foods can cause pro-inflammatory reactions in the gut that may increase the risk of depression, according to Dr. Chan.

Whenever a study has a limited demographic, it is hard to say with confidence that the same outcome would apply to other groups, but what is known is that the quality of a diet — adequate nutrient intake — is key to overall health,” said Connie Diekman, a registered dietician and a past president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, who wasn’t involved in the study. “Therefore, as an RD, my take on the outcome is that focusing on better food choices and nutrient-rich foods provides people with a better chance of being and staying healthy.”

Susan Albers, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic who was not involved with the new study, pointed out something else. Whole foods made with fresh ingredients are filled with fiber, vitamins and minerals linked to boosting mental health. It could be less that a poor diet harms you and more that a good diet lifts you up.  

Instead of thinking about this study as a negative, it might be more beneficial to reframe it as a positive. The study found that people who ate more whole foods and very few ultra-processed foods were 50 percent less likely to be depressed. You may find it more uplifting if you think about it like that. It may shift you away from seeing this as a doom and gloom study and more as something to aspire to. We should all try to eat as many whole foods as possible and cook from scratch as often as we can. In addition to aiding your blood sugar, health and weight, your mental health will thank you as well!

Banner image: Stefan C. Asafti via Unsplash

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