In recent years, scientists and health professionals have continuously warned about the risks of ultra-processed food consumption. Studies have consistently linked it with physical health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes. However, a new study proves these food items can also affect mental health. Notably, it establishes a firm correlation between depression and the consumption of ultra-processed foods, particularly drinks containing artificial sweeteners.
The study, a joint effort by Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School researchers, utilized data from one of the most comprehensive studies on women’s long-term health in the US. The team analyzed diets and mental health for over 30,000 middle-aged women who did not suffer from depression. The 14-year-long study, conducted from 2003 to 2017, encompasses mainly white women.
The Harvard researchers considered the overall intake and types of ultra-processed food consumed. Foods included sweet and savory snacks, meals prepared with ultra-processed grains or dairy products, processed meat, and beverages sweetened with artificial substances. Besides this, they also assessed sauces and fats labeled as ‘ultra-processed.’
The study findings are alarming. After adjusting for other causes for depression, like lifestyle, health, and socioeconomic risks, women who consumed nine or more servings of ultra-processed food a day had a 49% higher risk of depression than individuals who ate less than four portions. Reducing ultra-processed food consumption by at least three servings daily is beneficial. Women who did this had a lower risk of depression than those with consistent ultra-processed food intake.
The authors firmly conclude that an increased intake of ultra-processed food consumption, especially artificial sweeteners, is associated with an elevated depression risk. They back this up with previous experimental studies showing that artificial sweeteners can trigger specific signaling molecules responsible for mood changes in our brains.
However, there are voices of caution against drawing quick conclusions. According to David Curtis, an Honorary Professor at the University College London Genetics Institute, the study strongly suggests a correlation between artificial sweeteners and the reported increased risk of depression. Still, it does not inevitably prove that the sweeteners increase the risk of depression. They could be more popular among individuals already prone to depression.
But Andrew T. Chan, a key contributor to the research from Massachusetts General Hospital, believes in the strength of the findings. He states that the study’s robust design allowed for diet assessment several years before depression’s onset. This reduces the chance of attributing the results to depression-prone individuals’ preference for ultra-processed foods.
Keith Frayn, an Emeritus Professor of Human Metabolism at the University of Oxford, agrees with the study’s findings. He believes the correlation between artificial sweeteners and depression is clear, adding to the growing worry over artificial sweeteners’ effects on cardiometabolic health.
To summarize, this large-scale study connects ultra-processed food consumption, particularly those with artificial sweeteners, to an increased risk of depression. The findings guide individuals to reduce the intake of ultra-processed foods to lower depression risks effectively. Yet, some experts caution not to rush to conclusions and further analyze the relationship between artificial sweeteners and depression. The research is paving the way for future studies to confirm and explain these links.