Image by Brook Lark
Food can have many effects on your mood and emotions. When you’re hungry and want food, you can be grumpy, upset, or even angry. When you’ve had a delicious meal, you may feel elated and euphoric.
The food you eat can also have long-term implications for your health. Specifically, eating too much sugar may increase your risk for mood disorders, including depression.
Sugar occurs naturally in complex carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables, and grains. It’s also present in simple, refined foods like pasta, cakes, baked goods, bread, soda, and candy. The typical American diet relies heavily on these easily digestible carbs, and includes far too few complex carbs derived from healthier sources.
Eating too many simple sugars may increase your risk for depression, mood disorders, and several chronic health issues. Read on to learn about the link between sugar and depression. Plus, get tips for managing your sweet tooth.
Researchers in London discovered that a diet rich in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and fish, can lower your risk for depression in middle age. According to their study, people who ate processed foods like sweetened desserts, fried foods, and processed meats were more likely to be diagnosed with depression than people who largely relied on unprocessed, whole foods.
You already know you should eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and fish for heart and brain health and to help ward off chronic diseases. Now, you can pile your plate with plants in order to keep depression at bay.
A study done in rats found that the brain’s sweet receptors are not adapted to constant and high levels of sugar. This intense sweetness can stimulate the brain’s reward center and may be more pleasurable than cocaine, even in people with a drug addiction. In other words, the high from sugar is stronger than the high from cocaine. Your self-control mechanisms are no match for sugar’s strength.
Want to break your sugar addiction? Sugar is everywhere, from drinks and sauces to soups and sandwiches. Look for places sugar hides in your daily diet and create strategies to slowly cut back. As you eliminate sugar, your palate will adjust, and you won’t need as much sugar to reach satisfaction.
Did you know? The high from sugar is stronger than the high from cocaine.
A diet that is high in fruits and vegetables may reduce inflammation in your body’s tissues, whereas a diet that is high in refined carbs may promote inflammation.
Many of the symptoms of inflammation are also common with depression, such as:
- loss of appetite
- changes in sleep patterns
- heightened perceptions of pain
That’s why depression may be an underlying sign of inflammation problems.
Talk to your doctor if you suspect chronic inflammation. They can run tests to see if you have any other health conditions linked to inflammation. They can also offer suggestions to help you follow an anti-inflammatory diet.
Researchers are so confident that depression can be linked to sugar intake that they’ve studied using insulin to treat it. In one study, researchers found that people with both major depression and insulin resistance showed improvement in their depression symptoms when they were given medication to treat diabetes for 12 weeks. The effect was particularly strong in younger study participants.
More research is needed before doctors can begin prescribing insulin or other diabetes medication for people with depression. However, talk to your doctor about new research and alternative treatment options.
Men may be more susceptible to the mental health effects of sugar than women. In one study, researchers found that men who ate 67 grams of sugar or more per day were 23 percent more likely to have depression after five years. Men who ate 40 grams of sugar or less had a lower risk of depression.
The American Heart Association recommends adults eat no more than 25 (women) to 36 (men) grams of added sugar every day. More than 82 percent of Americans exceed that daily recommendation. That’s because sugar can quickly add up. For example, one 12-ounce can of soda has about 39 grams of sugar, which exceeds the recommended daily amount of added sugar. According to the CDC, men also eat more calories from sugar in a day than women.
Read labels carefully to spot hidden sugar. Just because something is savory, like a sauce, or healthy, like yogurt, doesn’t meant that there isn’t any added sugar, either.
Reducing sugar doesn’t mean you need to reduce carbs. One study looked at the quantity and quality of carbs consumed by nearly 70,000 women who had completed menopause. Researchers applied a glycemic index (GI) score to each food they analyzed. Foods with high GI scores, which raise blood sugar levels more, are often made from simple carbs and filled with simple sugars. The results showed that women who ate high-GI foods had a higher risk of depression than people who ate lower-GI foods. Women who ate a higher amount of lower-GI foods, such as vegetables and non-juiced fruit, had a lower risk for depression.
The results mean that carbohydrates in general aren’t the cause for depression and other mental health disorders. Instead, it’s the quality of the carbs you eat that can impact your depression risk.
- Choose low-GI foods to reduce your risk for depression. Read more about following a low-glycemic diet.
Muffins, croissants, pastries, and other commercially prepared baked goods may taste good, but they may also trigger depression. Spanish researchers found that individuals who ate the most baked goods had a 38 percent higher risk of depression than individuals who ate the least number of baked goods. The researchers suggested the intake of trans fats may play a role. This type of unhealthy fat leads to inflammation and increases your risk for cardiovascular disease and heart attack. It’s commonly found in commercial baked goods.
Trans fats were banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). American food manufacturers have until mid-2018 to remove all trans fats from their foods.
You can read food labels to find out if the food you’re eating contains trans fats. You can also focus your diet on whole foods that do not contain artificial ingredients like trans fats.
If you experience any signs or symptoms of depression, talk with your doctor. This common mental health disorder is treatable and manageable. The first step is asking a professional to help you understand your options.
Your doctor may recommend medical treatment, such as prescription drugs. They may also recommend psychotherapy. Likewise, lifestyle changes are commonly recommended. These may include eating a diet filled with:
- lean meats
- whole grains
Exercise is also commonly recommended. A combination of these approaches is also commonly used.
When you’re ready to give up sugar, keep these five helpful hints in mind:
1. Cut back on the obvious sources
Sugar-sweetened beverages, including soda, energy drinks, and coffee drinks, contain a lot of added sugar. Smoothies, juice drinks, and fruit juices frequently boast big sugar numbers, too. Opt for still water, sparkling water, or chilled unsweetened tea instead of sugar-packed sips. Or squeeze a lemon or lime into your water to add natural sweetness.
2: Pick healthier desserts
Grain- and dairy-based desserts are filled with sugar and simple carbs. At the end of a big meal, pass on these filling and nutrient-light options. Instead, reach for:
- fresh fruit
- a handful of dates
- a square of dark chocolate
- sautéed fruit sprinkled with cinnamon
Swap candy for fresh fruit or naturally dried fruit.
3. Choose quality carbs
Carbs aren’t all bad, but the quality does matter. Exchange simple grains for more complex options, such as whole grains. Unlike white flour, white pasta, and white rice, whole-grain varieties of these common foods cause less of a spike to your blood sugar than simple grains, and provide a bonus of nutrients that isn’t found in highly processed foods.
4. Read food labels
Food manufacturers frequently add sugar to savory foods like marinara sauce, canned soup, and even bread to boost flavor satisfaction. Flip over any box, bag, or jar you’re buying. If added sugar is one of the first five ingredients, return the product to the shelf. Here are the 56 most common names for sugar that you may find on labels.
5. Challenge yourself
Kick your sugar habit by challenging yourself — and perhaps your friends and family members — to a sugar scrub. Eliminate all added sugars and artificial sugars from your diet for two weeks. After that brief period of time, you just might find that you’ve reset your taste preferences and no longer crave the overabundance of sugar you were eating just a few weeks before.
Sugars from simple carbohydrates are linked to many health issues, including depression. Work with your doctor or a registered dietitian to slowly cut back on your sugar intake. The key with sugar is not to cut it out completely. Instead, you should aim to improve your ratio of added sugar to natural sugars. However, consuming complex carbs, such as those found in fruits and vegetables, may actually lower your risk of these conditions.