Can Junk Food Give You the Blues?

By Simon J. Evans, PhD

Can Junk Food Give You the Blues?This is one question researchers set out to answer in a recent study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. Many studies have focused on different nutrients as playing a role in mental health, but this group wanted to look at diet patterns as a whole to determine what big things in your diet might be affecting your mood.

The research team, from the University College of London and lead by Dr. Tasnime Akbaraly, used data from a large study called the Whitehall II study, which monitored many social, lifestyle, work and health factors in a group of over 10,000 British civil servants. Dr. Akbaraly’s team focused on evaluating whether what people ate affected their chance of becoming depressed, using a approximately 3,500 people.

The researchers used a food questionnaire to lump dietary patterns into two major groups: a whole foods group (heavily loaded with fruits, vegetables and fish) and a processed food group (heavily loaded with sweets, fried foods, high-fat dairy, processed grains and processed meats). What they found was that those who ate more of the whole foods or less of the process foods were less likely to become depressed.

To test the validity of their findings, they used statistical tools to remove the affects of several of other things that might contribute to depression, including: age, gender, marital status, physical activity, smoking, education level, employment grade, and a host of other medical conditions. After adjusting for all of these, the findings still stood. More people who developed depression had a diet high in processed foods and low in whole foods than people who didn’t become depressed.

These data are interesting because no other studies had really evaluated a ‘pro-depressive’ effect of processed foods. Many studies have shown benefit of individual nutrients, like omega-3s and B vitamins in being protective against depression, but not evaluated diet patterns as a whole or showed that processed foods might increase the odds of depression.

For many people it’s kind of a no-brainer that the foods you eat can affect the way you feel. However, more studies like this one are needed to really make the link between different aspects of the diet and the risk of real depressive disorders, not just blue moods. The more we understand all the factors involved in contributing to depression and related disorders, the more we can do to effectively treat it.

Currently, psychiatrists, nurses and social workers all work together to help people deal with mental illnesses from different angles. Data is emerging, like this study, that suggests if we added nutritionists and exercise professionals into the mix, we could do an even better job.

Studies like this are the only way we can really solidify the science behind a broad treatment approach; and without the data insurance won’t cover it, and without insurance coverage the system won’t change. But do we need to wait for the system to change in order to live better today? No. Eat Well. Your brain will thank you.


Reference: Akbaraly et al., Dietary Pattern and Depressive Symptoms in Middle Age. The British Journal of Psychiatry (2009) 195:408-413.



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