Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to Increased Risk of Depression in Women

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A recent study adds to growing evidence that ultra-processed food may have adverse effects on mental health, finding that greater intake of ultra-processed foods and drinks is associated with an increased risk of depression in women. 

The study, published in JAMA Network Open, was led by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. According to the study’s authors, extensive data links depression to human disease; however, research on the effects of ultra-processed food on the risk of depression is scant. For this study, researchers sought to further investigate the relationship between consumption of ultra-processed food and depression in adult women. 

To do so, investigators conducted a prospective study in the Nurses' Health Study II between 2003 and 2017 among middle-aged females free of depression at baseline. Every four years, the participants were asked to complete a validated food frequency questionnaire that assessed their diet. To determine whether the participants were depressed, researchers used two definitions. One was a strict definition requiring self-reported clinician-diagnosis depression and regular antidepressant use. The other was broader but also required a clinical diagnosis or antidepressant use.

According to the study, compared to those in the lowest quintile of UPF consumption, those in the highest quintile had an increased risk of depression for both the strict and broad definitions. The researchers then analyzed the association of specific UPF components with the risk of depression. They found that only artificially sweetened beverages and artificial sweeteners were linked to an increased risk of depression.

These results indicate that ultra-processed foods may influence the risk of depression. However, the study noted that further research is needed to determine the mechanism associated with ultra-processed foods to depression.