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What You Need to Know About the Study Linking Sugar Consumption to Depression

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Editor’s note: To give context to this study, this piece discusses figures that could potentially be triggering to someone with an eating disorder. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

Depression is complicated. From genes to the environment, there are a number of factors that contribute to whether or not a person will develop depression. And now, a new study suggests how much sugar you eat can play a role too.

According to research published in Scientific Reports, eating too much sugar can cause men to develop depression. But before you go throwing out all of your snacks, here’s what you need to know.

What The Study Says

Using the Whitehall II study, researchers looked at the diet habits and medical conditions of 5,000 men and 2,000 women over the course of 22 years and found that men who ate more than 67 grams of sugar per day were 23 percent more likely to be diagnosed with depression within a five-year period than men who ate less sugar. The same effect was not seen in women, although less women were studied.

At first, researchers thought this increase might be due to men eating more sugar when they felt depressed, but the data did not support that theory.

“High-sugar diets have a number of influences on our health but our study shows that there might also be a link between sugar and mood disorders, particularly among men,” lead study author Anika Knüppel told The Guardian. “There are numerous factors that influence chances for mood disorders, but having a diet high in sugary foods and drinks might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

How Much Sugar Is Too Much?

“It is very easy to go over the recommended limit since so many staples in the American diet are made up of added sugars,” Michal Hertz, MA, RD, a New York City based nutritionist who focuses on eating disorders, told The Mighty.

According to the American Heart Association, women should aim for no more than six teaspoons (24 grams) of added sugar per day and men, nine teaspoons (36 grams).

A recent study from Harvard School of Public Health found that more than 70 percent of Americans eat up to 22 teaspoons (110 grams) of added sugars per day. You can easily consume more than 67 grams of sugar, the amount referenced in the Scientific Reports study, just by drinking two 12-ounce cans of soda.

But before you go changing your diet, nutritionists warn that too little sugar can be just as bad for your mental health, if not worse.

“Unfortunately, these studies can end up being very harmful to those suffering from eating disorders,” Justine Roth, MS, RD, CDN, a nutritionist who specializes in mindful eating approaches, said. “Any media coverage on a particular food or group of foods can have a major effect on someone who has an eating disorder or is at risk for developing one.”

In her New York City nutrition practice, Valery Kallen, MS, RD, said she’s definitely seen a connection between mental health and sugar, but it’s most often when people dangerously restrict calories.

The link to sugar and mental health that I’ve seen almost always has to do with a over-restriction of sugar causing an over-consumption of sugar as a compensatory effect, and feeling out of control around food in this way often makes people feel anxious, ashamed and depressed. Once people are able to normalize their food intake — not restrict and not binge — these feelings markedly improve because they no longer feel compelled to act on their hormonally-driven food cravings.

“Moderation and balance are key,” Hertz said. “The message should not be about restricting all sugary foods, rather that we don’t want to have them as the star of our diets. If you are a person who likes a sweet every now and then, then you should feel comfortable incorporating it without feeling guilty or like a failure.”

What You Need to Know

“My takeaway would be to regard these studies with a grain of salt – or sugar,” Kallen told The Mighty, adding:

As much as we would love for there to be a simple fix like just decreasing sugar consumption, it is not so cut and dry. Sugar is not the culprit. Food choices can certainly contribute to mental health but no single food or single nutrient can influence it; rather it’s the cumulative effects of eating habits over time that can have an impact, as well as other health-conscious behaviors like sleep, exercise and stress levels.

If you are concerned about your mental health or your diet, speak to a mental health professional or work with a nutritionist to figure out what works best for you and your body.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

Originally published: August 17, 2017
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