Artificial sweeteners in processed foods may raise risk of depression

by Rajesh Kaur

Highly processed packaged foods and drinks may be quick, cheap, and tasty, but new research suggests they’re also likely to increase your risk for depression. A new study found that among big consumers of ultra-processed foods, depression risk may rise by as much as 50%, particularly when those foods are artificially sweetened.

The study, conducted by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, focused on foods that are “highly altered, often through industrial processes such as hydrogenation.” These foods often contain additives such as dyes, stabilizers, and emulsifiers, and examples include most fast food, cookies, and chips.

Hydrogenation is a chemical manufacturing process that significantly increases the amount of trans fat found in foods. Trans fat intake has been repeatedly linked to an increased risk for heart disease. In addition to the association with heart disease, the study found that highly processed foods and drinks, specifically those containing artificial sweeteners, were associated with a higher risk for depression.

The researchers conducted the study using data from nearly 32,000 middle-aged women who participated in the Nurses’ Health Study II between 2003 and 2017. The results showed that women who consumed the most ultra-processed foods had a 50% higher risk for depression compared to those who consumed less. However, it’s important to note that the study does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

While it’s possible that people with depression may gravitate towards highly processed foods, the researchers believe that their findings are not solely due to depression leading to different food choices. The study also found that cutting back on highly processed foods by at least three servings per day over four years seemed to lower the risk for depression.

The exact mechanism through which highly processed foods contribute to depression risk remains unclear, but researchers have suggested a few possibilities. Ultra-processed foods have been linked to chronic inflammation, which can have various adverse health effects, including depression. These foods can also disrupt the gut microbiome, which has been linked to mood regulation.

Given the potential association between highly processed foods and adverse health conditions, including depression, the researchers recommend that individuals limit their intake of these foods. Making this lifestyle change could have important benefits, especially for those who struggle with mental health.

Looking at the broader picture, it’s important to recognize that nutrition plays a role in overall health, including mental health. While it can be challenging to determine the specific impact of individual foods or nutrients, focusing on meeting nutrient needs through a balanced diet is key.

This study adds to the growing body of research highlighting the potential negative effects of highly processed foods on mental health. It serves as a reminder to prioritize whole, unprocessed foods in our diet and to be mindful of the additives and artificial sweeteners found in many packaged foods. By making informed food choices, individuals can take steps to support their overall well-being and mental health.

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