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Ultra-processed foods may increase depression risk in women, study shows

Posted at 7:12 PM, Sep 21, 2023

(WXYZ) — New research is shedding light on the impact our diets may have on our mental well-being.

A recently published study uncovered a link between artificially sweetened, ultra-processed foods and an increased risk of depression in women.

I know a lot of people including some of my patients that love highly processed packaged foods and beverages.

And I understand the appeal: they're quick, easy and don't cost much. But this new research suggests that if you have too much of these foods, you might have a higher chance of becoming depressed.

Now, this study included almost 32,000 women between 42 and 62 years old. At the start, none of these women had any signs of depression. However, by the end of the study, over 2,100 of them were found to have depression.

After breaking down what the women ate, here's what the researchers found. Women who consumed nine or more servings of ultra-processed foods per day were about 50% more likely to develop depression compared to those consuming four servings or less.

But what was even more interesting is that the study found that ultra-processed foods and drinks that contained artificial sweeteners had a particularly negative effect and showed an even stronger connection to depression.

Ultra-processed foods have been linked to chronic inflammation. Now, inflammation is a natural part of our body's healing process. It serves to protect and heal us when we face injuries, illnesses or toxins.

But chronic inflammation happens when your body continues sending inflammatory cells even when there is no danger. As for the exact way that these foods can affect inflammatory pathways, it's not fully understood yet. But research shows that the Western diet can lead to consistently elevated levels of inflammation in the body.

Also, there's evidence indicating that ultra-processed foods can disrupt the normal gut microbiome, promoting a pro-inflammatory environment. This disturbance could prompt the microbiome to release molecules that influence the risk of developing depression.

Now, it's important to know that the study is observational, meaning it establishes an association between ultra-processed foods and depression.

We can't say for sure that one causes the other. However, other research has shown that eating whole foods rich in essential nutrients like fiber, vitamins and minerals is associated with positive mental health.

So, you might want to consider reducing how much ultra-processed foods you eat. There's the classic junk foods like chips, soda and sugary treats. But there's also pre-packaged soups, ready-to-eat meals, french fries, hot dogs, yogurts and packaged bread that are also ultra-processed.

So when out grocery shopping, try to make healthy choices that include leafy green vegetables, dark yellow vegetables, fruit and whole grains as these are associated with lower inflammation. And try your best to cut back on highly processed food, especially those containing artificial sweeteners.