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Ultra-Processed Food and Depression: An Unsurprising Link

Does what you snack on affect your mood? In a word – yes!

A recent study published by the JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Network shows us some eye-opening findings about how what’s on your plate might be affecting what’s in your head.

Connecting the Dots Between Ultra-Processed Food and Depression

In the aforementioned study spanning from 2003 to 2017, researchers examined a group of middle-aged women without depression, armed with food questionnaires and a penchant for enjoying processed foods.

The subjects filled out food frequency questionnaires (FFQs) every four years to explain their snacking habits. The researchers then used the NOVA classification to determine how much tinkering the foods they reported consuming had been through. 

What they found was alarming, but maybe not surprising.

The study found that participants who ate higher volumes of ultra-processed food (UPFs) had higher BMIs, were more likely to smoke or use tobacco products, and were more likely to show signs of chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol. Incidentally (or maybe relatedly), this group didn’t get much physical activity either.

The study explored depression in two distinct ways.

First, the strict definition involved self-reported clinician-diagnosed depression combined with regular antidepressant use. Second, the broader definition considered clinical diagnosis or antidepressant use.

As it turns out, participants who consumed more UPFs had a significantly increased risk of depression in both categories. 

Fast-forward to 2021, where another study with 322 men and 322 women aged 30+ revealed helpful insights in the opposite direction. This study found that participants who ate healthy foods such as leafy greens, nuts, and fish were less likely to experience symptoms or signs of depression. Conversely, those who indulged in a diet high in UPFs were 51% more likely to be depressed.

A stack of ultra-processed donuts on a plate
ultra-processed food and depression

But Why Do These UPFs Contribute to Depression? And How?

But all of this still doesn’t answer one fundamental question: why are these UPFs connected with depression?

Just what is going on inside our bodies when we indulge in these tasty snacks that make us feel poorly in our minds, despite how good the food tastes?

Unfortunately, the exact tie between depression and ultra-processed foods remains a puzzle. Researchers from the JAMA study speculate that these foods might trigger the release of neurotransmitters typically associated with depression. 

The study mentioned, “Although the mechanism linking ultra-processed foods to depression remains a mystery, recent experimental data hints at a connection: artificial sweeteners seem to kickstart purinergic transmission in the brain, potentially playing a role in the development of depression.”

And for those of you now scratching your heads, wondering what purinergic transmission in the brain means, think of it like a messaging system where certain chemicals (purines) play a role in how brain cells communicate.

When this system is disrupted, it can affect brain function and may be linked to conditions like depression

What is Considered Ultra-Processed Food?

According to the Department of Agriculture, “processed food are any raw agricultural commodities that have been washed, cleaned, milled, cut, chopped, heated, pasteurized, blanched, cooked, canned, frozen, dried, dehydrated, mixed or packaged — anything done to them that alters their natural state.”

Think canned fish or veggies, fruits lounging in syrup, or freshly baked bread. Simple, right? To be fair, most of our food is technically processed. As far as I know, there aren’t a lot of raw vegans out there.

But ultra-processed foods take processing to the next level. They’re packed full of those extra ingredients like sugar, salt, fat, artificial colors, and preservatives. They’re also notoriously low in fiber and nutrients. Examples of these types of food include:

  • Soda
  • Reconstituted meat products
  • Pre-packaged snacks
  • Most pre-made frozen meals

And quite frankly, in such excess, these ingredients are bad for our bodies.

Processed Foods Are Everywhere

Ultra-processed foods currently dominate the dinner table, making up nearly 60% of the typical adult’s diet, and 70% of what kids eat every day. If that’s not cause for alarm enough, research from Northeastern University’s Network Science Institute indicates that a staggering 73% of the U.S. food supply falls into the ultra-processed category.

The Toll of Unprocessed Foods on Your Overall Health

In an article titled “What Doctors Wish Patients Knew About Ultra-Processed Food,” Dr. Stephen Devries, sums it up like this: “Health consequences of ultra-processed foods are dire. The study discovered a 31% higher mortality for the highest versus lowest consumers of ultra-processed foods,” he explained. “The concerns include recent documentation of an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and dementia.

“The stakes are high because ultra-processed foods are so widely consumed. Recent data shows that 57% of caloric intake in adults comes from ultra-processed foods,” he said. “For children, it’s sadly even higher, with 67% of children’s daily calories from relatively empty ultra-processed foods.”

The State of Depression in the U.S. 

In 2023, it’s estimated that 29.0% of Americans have faced the diagnosis of depression at some point in their lives, with 17.8% dealing with it right now.

And the truth is that depression doesn’t discriminate. It can work its way into anyone’s life, and there are countless triggers – stress at work, the pressure cooker of school, family turmoil, grief, or the heavy cloak of loneliness. In fact, a recent Gallup poll revealed that both lifetime and current depression rates have hit an all-time high for Americans in 2023.

Eating Away the Blues

Depression and diet often go hand in hand. When the darkness of depression clouds your day, your relationship with food can suffer.

Some find solace in overeating, leading to weight gain as they turn to food to lift their spirits. Or maybe our active lifestyles leave little time for cooking healthy, balanced meals. Processed food is quicker. That’s part of the allure.

So, it becomes a cycle. You don’t feel good, so you reach for comfort foods like chips, sweets, and items heavy in starch. It hits the spot at first until it doesn’t.

Eventually, you feel a heaviness in your gut, fatigue, and lethargy set in from the overindulgence, which only makes you feel lousier, and round and round we go.

Yet, we tend to do this repeatedly, not realizing that the very thing we are doing to comfort ourselves is actually contributing to the root problem. It’s very similar to the cycle of emotional drinking.

The good news from these studies is that eating a healthier diet of unprocessed or minimally processed whole foods can help reverse the effects.

Enter the Mediterranean Diet 

Researchers have shown that a wholesome diet, like the Mediterranean diet, can actually help to lessen depression symptoms. The Mediterranean diet is linked to reduced heart disease risk factors, like high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure. 

Today, American nutrition experts and the World Health Organization hail this eating plan as a beacon of health. The Mediterranean diet is rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and olive oil, all jazzed up with flavorful herbs and spices.

Evidence shows that the Mediterranean diet can boost mood and cognitive function, and potentially alleviate anxiety. This effect may be due to improved gut health, which favors the breakdown of fiber-rich foods, producing helpful substances like short-chain fatty acids (e.g., butyrate) while reducing inflammation. 

While the researchers weren’t ready to draw exact conclusions about how ultra-processed food and depression are connected, I wouldn’t be surprised if gut health plays a role.

We know there is a delicate and important connection between gut health and mental health. We also know that UPFs lack the fiber and nutrients we need to maintain good gut health.

So none of this is particularly surprising to me, but we need to learn more.

If you’re interested in exploring the connection between the gut and mood, I recommend these books:

You can also check out this video from Big Think:

Solving the Challenge of Ultra-Processed Food and Depression

The findings are clear – what you eat can impact how you feel. It’s one of the biggest reasons why I advocate for improved nutrition in sobriety.

Healthy, whole foods are an integral part of our mental and physical health. We need them to heal properly.

Let this be your starting point.

You don’t have to revolutionize your diet overnight. In fact, that probably won’t work because it’s not how humans make change that sticks.

But you can start by adding unprocessed and minimally processed, whole foods into your diet. And then see where it takes you!

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