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Surprising Science

New Study Finds Sugar Increases Risk of Depression in Men

Men who consume over 67 grams of sugar are at an increased risk for depression and anxiety.
A man drinks a a bottle of Coke while walking in front of San Francisco City Hall on July 22, 2014 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Sugar is not having a good decade. Like tobacco manufacturers in the fifties and sixties, companies that overload their products with the sweet stuff are feeling the push back, though like nicotine and smart phones, sugar is extremely addictive. All we can do is present the data and hope for the best.

Sugar took yet another hit with a recent study in London that was published in Scientific Reports. It’s not only your waist line and insulin levels suffering from your sweet tooth. Your mental health is taking a major hit as well, especially if you’re a man.

This was no small study. Sugar consumption of seven thousand people, five thousand of them male, was tracked for twenty-two years. Men who ingested over 67 grams per day via sweetened foods and beverages, considered the top-third of this study, had a 23 percent increased chance of developing common mental disorders, including anxiety and depression, over the lower third (>39.5 grams).

Average consumption of sugar per day of males in the UK in 2013? 68.4 grams. How about America? In 2015 the number for all adults was 94 grams.

The researchers of the new study, led by UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Public Health’s Anika Knüppel, found their results independent of numerous factors, including overall health behaviors, general diet, weight, and socio-demographic status. They also discovered that people with mood disorders were not more likely to consume sugary foods, an important marker. This means everyone studied began with a clean slate regarding mental health.

Interestingly, the link was stronger in men than in woman. Knüppel says,

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. 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. The study found no link between sugar intake and new mood disorders in women and it is unclear why. 

While adults ingest double recommended daily limits of sugar in the UK, that number is triple in the US. According to research, depression is going to be the “leading cause of disability in high income countries by 2030.”

The British government stepped in last year to combat this trend. As of April 2018 a new sugar tax will be added to sugary beverages. While Michael Bloomberg’s high-profile attempt at similar legislation failed (and was subsequently mocked), similar efforts in Philadelphia and Berkeley are now in place.

In fact, minority and low-income residents of Berkeley—monitored due to the likelihood these communities will drink cheap, sweetened beverages—drank 21 percent less after the tax went into effect. During the same period sales of sugary beverages in San Francisco and Oakland creeped up 4 percent.

Researchers admit flaws in their study, most prominently that subjects tend to misreport or underreport diet data. They might also misreport or underreport behavioral symptoms. Even with those limitations they were confident in their overall assessment: sugar does a brain bad. As they put it,

With a high prevalence of mood disorders, and sugar intake commonly two to three times the level recommended, our findings indicate that policies promoting the reduction of sugar intake could additionally support primary and secondary prevention of depression. 

It’s unlikely that the current administration is going to undertake any nutritional measures given that we’ve transitioned from a first family focused on gardening to one with terrible eating habits. Until serious policy changes are considered we must rely on crusades like Bloomberg’s, who has spent millions of dollars at the local level.

Cheap processed foods might feel good for your wallet and provide immediate comfort, but long-term effects simply aren’t worth it. Depression and anxiety are real concerns, and they’re only growing. A life of temporary pleasures is not worth the cost.

Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.


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