Ultra-processed foods, especially artificial sweeteners, may increase depression risk

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
Tourists and street food vendors at Columbus Circle with the Manhattan Skyline in the background.Share on Pinterest
Ultra-processed foods have been linked to an increased risk of depression. Lindsey Nicholson/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
  • Research is ongoing about how diet plays a role in mental well-being and the development of certain mental health conditions.
  • A recent study found that consuming ultra-processed foods, and in particular artificial sweeteners, may increase the risk of depression.
  • Experts recommend steps to improve one’s diet and reduce the consumption of ultra-processed foods to decrease this risk.

Depression is a common mental health condition that can be debilitating. Researchers are still seeking the best ways to treat it and the best ways to prevent its development. One area of interest is how diet plays a role.

A recent study published in JAMA Network found that eating ultra-processed foods increases the risk for depression. The researchers found that the risk was particularly related to eating foods and drinking beverages containing artificial sweeteners.

The study results indicate another potential benefit of limiting consumption of ultra-processed foods.

Researchers of this study looked at the relationship between ultra-processed foods and depression. Karen Z Berg, a dietitian who was not involved in the study, gave the following definition of ultra-processed foods:

“Ultra-processed foods, by the NOVA definition, are foods that are made up of manufactured ingredients with the addition of salt, oil, or sugar to make [them] palatable and to help preserve [them]. They usually don’t have any worthwhile nutritional benefits. Some examples include cold packaged snacks like chips or cookies, sodas, packaged pastries, many sweet breakfast cereals, candy, etc.”
— Karen Z Berg

“The highly processed nature of these foods often yields a cheaper product that is more shelf-stable and more palatable than a whole food item. This makes them easy to eat. They are also usually high in calories, fat, salt, and sugar which can lead to weight gain,” she told Medical News Today.

This cohort study included Nurses’ Health Study II participants who did not have depression at baseline. The researchers ultimately included 31,712 participants in their analysis.

They looked at food frequency questionnaires from participants. The researchers then looked at the amounts of ultra-processed foods that participants consumed based on the NOVA classification. This system helps group foods based on processing and helps identify ultra-processed foods.

The researchers accounted for certain possible or known risk factors for depression, including age, activity levels, alcohol intake, and smoking.

During the study, 2,122 participants developed depression when researchers defined depression by a strict definition, and 4,840 participants developed depression when researchers used a broader definition for depression.

The researchers found that participants who had the highest consumption of ultra-processed foods had the highest risk for depression compared to participants who had the lowest consumption of ultra-processed foods.

These study results add to growing evidence about the health benefits of limiting ultra-processed food consumption. Past studies have also linked processed foods to increased depression risk in the long term.

“Consuming a diet rich in ultra-processed foods is associated with an increased risk of various health issues, including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. This is largely attributed to their high levels of unhealthy fats, sugars, sodium, and additives, which can lead to imbalanced nutrition and a range of adverse health outcomes when consumed regularly,” Hulsey noted.

People can take steps to reduce their intake of ultra-processed foods using a number of strategies, including replacing ultra-processed foods with healthier options and opting for smaller portions. People can appropriately consult with doctors and nutrition specialists who can provide further nutritional guidance.

“The best way for people to know they are avoiding ultra-processed foods is by reading food labels. Try to eat whole foods as much as possible (i.e. fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, lean meat, etc.) in their natural forms. If you must buy packaged goods, read the ingredients and the food label. Look for whole foods on the ingredient list, and avoid foods that have many additives or processed foods in them.”
— Karen Z Berg

“One effective approach is to prioritize whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and legumes in your diet. Planning and preparing meals at home allows for greater control over ingredients and cooking methods, reducing reliance on packaged or fast-food options,” Hulsey added.

Share this Article