Consuming large quantities of ultra-processed foods, especially those containing artificial sweeteners, is associated with a higher risk of depression, according to research.
Despite extensive data linking ultra-processed foods to physical health issues, such as strokes, heart attacks and increased blood pressure, this is the first large-scale study to suggest that the consumption of ultra-processed foods and beverages, particularly those containing artificial sweeteners, could increase the risk of depression, reports The Guardian.
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Using data from one of the largest long-term women's health studies in the United States, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School examined the diets and mental health of over 30,000 middle-aged women, mainly of Caucasian descent, who did not suffer from depression, between 2003 and 2017.
The authors estimated the overall extent of ultra-processed food consumption as well as the types of foods, such as ultra-processed cereal products, sweet snacks, ready-made meals, fats and sauces, ultra-processed dairy products, savory snacks, processed meats, beverages and artificial sweeteners.
They then compared the number of women who developed depression with their consumption of ultra-processed foods. Adjusting for other health risk factors, lifestyle and socio-economic risk factors for depression, the research, published in the American journal JAMA Network Open, found that those who consumed nine or more servings of ultra-processed foods per day had a 49% higher risk of depression than those who consumed less than four servings per day.
Furthermore, those who reduced their consumption of ultra-processed foods by at least three servings per day showed a lower risk of depression than those with relatively stable consumption.
"These findings suggest that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods, especially artificial sweeteners and artificially sweetened beverages, is associated with an increased risk of depression", concluded the authors. "Experimental studies have shown that artificial sweeteners can trigger the transmission of certain signaling molecules in the brain that are important for mood".
Responding to these findings, Keith Frayn, Emeritus Professor of Human Metabolism at the University of Oxford, said:"The relationship between artificial sweeteners and depression is clearly emerging. This adds to the growing concerns about artificial sweeteners and cardiometabolic health. The link to depression needs to be confirmed and further research should be conducted to suggest how it might be triggered".