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Research Shows Ultra-Processed Foods Cause Higher Depression Risks

Updated: Jan 14

In a recently released study, researchers say they’ve found a close link between consumption of highly processed foods and a greater risk of depression in middle-aged women.

Ultra-Processed Foods Cause Higher Depression Risk
Franki Chamaki x Unsplash

The research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network Open, analyzed data from a comprehensive longitudinal cohort study, tracking the dietary habits and mental health outcomes of over 30,000 women, ages 42-62, over a full decade.

Longitudinal cohort studies track participants over an extended period, allowing researchers to project and clarify potential long-term health outcomes. Although ultra-processed foods (UPFs) have long been linked with other disease types, until now, they haven’t been studied for a prolonged period regarding their impact on depression specifically.

The study’s findings shed light on the potential mental health consequences of diets high in UPFs, particularly among middle-aged women who were depression-free at the start of the research. Researchers note that the study focused on primarily white women and no men, so findings are not necessarily applicable to everyone; more research is needed to evaluate other demographic groups.

Key Study Findings

The new research study found that:

  • Women who consume the highest proportion of UPFs—representing more than 40% of their daily caloric intake, or nine servings per day—face a 51% higher likelihood of depression than those who consume four servings or less.

  • This likelihood remained strong despite key variants like age, level of physical activity, and socioeconomic status. Results indicated that the increased risk of depression linked to UPFs is especially pronounced among women ages 42-62.

Ultra-Processed Foods Cause Higher Depression Risk

About Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs)

Described in the study report as “energy-dense, palatable, and ready-to-eat items,” UPFs can encompass a wide range of industrially manufactured products with excessive levels of sugar, salt, unhealthy fats, and various food additives.

Common UPFs include soft drinks, fast food, packaged snacks, hot dogs, doughnuts, ready-to-eat meals, sauces, and sugary dairy products like ice cream and yogurts.

Overconsumption of artificial sweeteners is known to cause inflammation in the brain and may be particularly suspect in causing depression.

UPFs are often nutritionally poor and lack essential vitamins and minerals crucial to brain health. Deficiencies in nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and antioxidants have been linked to mood disorders, including depression.

 Fast food causes depression

In addition, highly processed foods can promote chronic inflammation in the body, which has been associated with an increased risk of depression. Inflammatory chemicals can affect the brain and disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters responsible for mood regulation.

Overconsumption of artificial sweeteners is known to cause inflammation in the brain and may be particularly suspect in causing depression.

Prior Research on Diet and Mental Health

Emerging research suggests that UPFs may negatively impact the composition of the gut microbiome. The gut has also been shown to be closely linked to the brain, potentially influencing mood and behavior.

Ultra-Processed Foods Cause Higher Depression Risk
Claudia Wolff x Unsplash

Another significant study looked at the impact on brain health of a "Western-style" diet, high in fried foods specifically, concluding that people who consume these foods had a greater likelihood of developing depression.

Studies exploring the effect of healthier foods on mental health have found that a Mediterranean-style diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, fish, olive oil, and other healthy fats, is associated with a reduced risk of depression and cognitive decline in older adults.

Depression is a widespread mental health concern, affecting millions of people globally, with substantial related economic and social burdens. The findings of the recent JAMA study have important implications for public health policies and dietary recommendations, highlighting the need for interventions and education programs promoting healthier food choices.



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