Experts repeatedly warn that we should avoid ultra-processed foods or consume them only occasionally because they have a high content of salt, sugars, saturated fats and additives. In addition to what is known as ‘junk’ food, they also include mass-produced and highly refined foods that in some cases could be considered relatively “neutral” or even “healthy”, such as diet soft drinks, some fruit juices and flavored yogurts, margarine, or dishes of scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes or pasta ready to heat and eat, among others.
A new study carried out by Harvard University focuses on its harmful effects on health because it found that women who ate nine servings of ultra-processed foods a day had more likely to develop depression compared to those who did not consume more than four servings. The findings have been published in JAMA Open Network.
The researchers analyzed the eating habits and mental health status of 31,710 women between 42 and 62 years old who had participated in the Nurses’ Health Study II – a long-term observational study – and found that those who consumed the greater amount of ultra-processed foods (nine servings a day) were 50% more likely to develop depression than those who ate the least, no more than four servings a day.
Artificially sweetened foods and beverages and artificial sweeteners, in particular, were associated with depression risk
The women answered food frequency questionnaires every four years between 2003 and 2017, and the researchers used the NOVA system, which groups foods according to their degree of processing, to calculate the amount of ultra-processed foods they ate. Under that system, ultra-processed foods are ready-to-eat foods made mostly or entirely from foods and food additives that have little or no intact whole foods.
Ultra-processed foods were divided into categories such as fats and sauces, processed meats or drinks, and those who had been diagnosed with depression or were taking antidepressants to control their symptoms were considered to have depression. The authors of the work analyzed the data to detect changes in the consumption of ultra-processed foods and whether these women were subsequently diagnosed with depression. They identified 4,840 cases of depression, a figure that was reduced to 2,122 when they used a stricter definition of the illness that required women to have been diagnosed with depression and prescribed an antidepressant.
The results showed that women who consumed more ultra-processed foods had a higher risk of developing depression compared to those with lower consumption. A relevant fact was that the food and drinks artificially sweetened and the Artificial sweeteners, in particular, were associated with the risk of depression. And it was also observed that reducing the intake of ultra-processed foods was related to a lower risk of depression.
What came first: depression or an inadequate diet?
Melissa Lanea postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Food and Mood at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia, who was not involved in this study, told NBC News that the new research “supports other observational studies around the world that have found that higher intakes of ultra-processed foods are associated with a higher risk of developing depression.”
In fact, a study previously conducted by researchers at Deakin University that was published in Journal of Affective Disorders established a link between a high consumption of ultra-processed foods and a greater risk of depression; specifically, that “the risk of depression increases notably among people whose daily diet includes more than 30% ultra-processed foods.”
Experts from the University of Navarra reached a similar conclusion, concluding that regular consumers of ultra-processed foods such as industrial pastries, sugary soft drinks or prepared foods have a 33% greater risk of suffering from clinical depression in the future.
The new research differs from others that have compared ultra-processed food consumption to mental health in that its authors began the study before participants had reported any symptoms of depression and then followed them throughout. weather. This allowed them to establish a stronger connection between a person’s diet and their risk of developing depression.
However, a limitation of the study was that it included very few non-white women and no men, so its results cannot be extrapolated to the entire population. As noted by Lane, it is still unclear why there is a link between ultra-processed foods and depression.
Another key factor that is difficult to determine is which came first: diet or depression. “We don’t have a lot of energy when we’re feeling depressed,” said Susan Albers, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic who was not involved in the new study, “so it’s easy to turn to those foods when we’re low on energy and unmotivated to cook.” or go shopping; just open a package and they are ready to go.”