Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to Depression

A growing body of research has found a strong link between a healthy, nutritious diet and good physical health and longevity.  Evidence supports using food as medicine to help people recover from illness or regain their vitality following surgery.  But less has been known about the connection between diet and mental health.  A new study has found a strong association between eating more ultra-processed foods, especially artificially sweetened, and an increased risk for depression among women. 

According to a recent CNN Life But Better Food report, a new study from Harvard Medical School found that people who consumed 9 daily portions of ultra-processed foods had a 50 percent greater risk of developing depression compared with people who only ate 4 portions or less per day of these foods.  Ultra-processed foods include items like frozen pizza, prepackaged meals, hot dogs, sausages, French fries, soda, store-bought baked goods, candy, ice cream and packaged soups and sauces. 

In addition to developing depression, researchers also suggest that an ultra-processed diet may worsen the condition of those with chronic depression.  Artificial sweeteners in particular were linked with the incidence of depression. 

A diet high in ultra-processed foods is also associated with inflammation and an increased risk for chronic diseases including colorectal cancer, heart disease, obesity and early death in both men and women.  There has also been a link made between a diet that includes 20 percent of daily calories from ultra-processed food and a 28 percent increased risk for cognitive decline

In addition to chronic inflammation, a diet high in ultra-processed foods may also disrupt a healthy gut microbiome.  Recent research has made a connection between the gut and brain health.  People experiencing depression may seek out “comfort foods” but these junk food binges, along with other factors including social isolation, stress, or a family history of depression, can worsen existing mental health conditions. 

Further research is still needed to firmly establish the relationship between artificial sweeteners, ultra-processed foods and depression.  But a nutritious Mediterranean-style diet that focuses on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, and legumes can only help improve overall health and well-being. Stick to the outer aisles in the grocery store, and keep the processed foods to a minimum. A daily walk outdoors in nature couldn’t hurt either!