This US researcher set to find out if junk food really can put you at greater odds of depression
James E Gangswisch, an assistant professor at Columbia University in the department of psychiatry, wanted to find out whether foods with a higher HI (a scale that ranks carbohydrate-containing foods by how much they raise your blood sugar
) would be associated with greater odds of depression
“When I was a kid, I was almost a candy junkie!” Gangswisch says. “I noticed for myself, that if I eat a lot of sugar, it makes me feel down the next day.”
Gangswisch says he stopped eating added sugar years ago, but remained curious about whether a junk food diet could make people depressed. He believed it could.
Gangswisch and his team of researchers looked at data from food questionnaires and a scale that measures depressive disorder symptoms from postmenopausal women in the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study.
The data came from roughly 70,000 women, none of whom suffered from depression at the start of the study, who had a baseline measurement taken between 1994 and 1998, and then again after a three-year follow-up.
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Researchers found that what you eat is either putting you at risk of or protecting you from depression
Diets higher on the GI, including ones rich in refined grains and added sugar, were associated with greater odds of depression, researchers found. But some aspects of diet had protective effects against developing depression. These aspects included fibre, whole grains, whole fruits, veggies and lactose (a sugar that comes from dairy products).
Added sugars – but not total added sugar or total carbs – were strongly associated with depression.
How eating lots of junk food might land you in depression
Though the authors couldn’t pinpoint a mechanism from this study (it was associative) they note that one possibility is that the overconsumption of sugars and refined starches is a risk factor for inflammation and cardiovascular disease, both of which have been linked to the development of depression. This kind of diet could also lead insulin resistance, which is associated with cognitive deficits similar to those found in people with major depression.
Gangwisch says the team needs to do further researcher, and that it’s not yet known whether the results would translate to a broader group of people, including men and younger women. But even now, diet may be worth discussing with people who suffer from depression, Gangwisch says – even though doing so may be difficult.
“It’s hard enough to get the general public to avoid those kinds of foods, but it’s even harder to get someone who suffers from depression to avoid them and give them up,” he says. “You don’t want people to feel guilty either. To say, ‘your diet’s bad and you should change it,’ would take kind of a soft sell approach.”
Still, he believes the effort is worth it. “I think it’s important and I think it has a big effect on your mood and how you feel and your energy level,” he says. “If it’s something that people can change, they really would benefit from it.”