Study Reveals Unhealthy Foods That Make Depression Spike

While you might enjoy that chip bag or frozen pizza slice in the moment — its effects could leave you more prone to feelings of sadness long after you've finished eating.

A recent study showcased in the JAMA Open Network journal indicates that consuming "ultraprocessed" foods may increase the likelihood of depression.

The study, conducted by experts from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, examined the food preferences and emotional well-being of over 31,000 women aged between 42 and 62, as detailed in the journal report.

The information was sourced from the Nurses’ Health Study II, carried out from 2003 to 2017.

Every four years, each participant completed a dietary survey, revealing if they had consumed ultraprocessed foods (UPFs).

UPFs were categorized into nine segments: ultraprocessed grain foods, sweet snacks, ready-to-eat meals, fats and sauces, ultraprocessed dairy items, savory snacks, processed meats, drinks, and artificial sweeteners.

"Ultraprocessed foods are those that include many preservatives, stabilizers, bulking or gelling agents, as well as artificial colors and flavors," said Tanya Freirich, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Charlotte, North Carolina, who practices as The Lupus Dietitian. (She was not involved in the study.)

"They are generally the types of foods that are shelf-stable for years to come," she went on.

"Ultra-processed foods include things like chips, candies, frozen ‘TV dinners,’ chicken nuggets, sodas, sugar-filled breakfast cereals and packaged soups (the ‘just-add-hot-water’ type)."

"Our brain is just as vulnerable, if not more vulnerable than, other parts of our body to the negative effects of non-nutritive food additives."

To evaluate the mental health of the study participants, the researchers employed two criteria: firstly, a strict measure that involved self-reported depression diagnosed by a clinician and consistent use of antidepressants; and secondly, a broader measure that encompassed either a clinical diagnosis or the use of antidepressants, as detailed in the journal.

UPFs were classified into the aforementioned nine segments, as shown in the image (iStock).

The research team controlled for other potential factors that might impact the risk of depression, including age, body mass index, physical activity, smoking habits, sleep quality, chronic pain, alcohol consumption, income, and existing health conditions.

Upon examining the data, it was observed that individuals consuming higher quantities of ultraprocessed foods, especially artificial sweeteners and drinks sweetened artificially, had a heightened susceptibility to depression.

One hypothesis is that these artificial sweeteners induce chemical alterations in the brain, potentially instigating the onset of depression.

"It is known that artificial sweeteners affect the brain through a different pathway than natural sweeteners like sugar or honey," Frierich pointed out, noting that more research is needed in this area.

The study deduced that those with the greatest consumption of UPFs faced a 34% to 49% elevated risk of experiencing depression.

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