Skip the sugary treats this Chinese New Year to avoid the blues!

The consumption of a high-sugar diet has been implicated as a risk factor for an array of adverse health outcomes – obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and dental caries. As a result, Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH) has introduced mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labels for less healthy pre-packaged sugar sweetened beverage (SSBs) and advertising prohibitions for the least healthy SSBs on local mass media channels.

New research by clinical psychologists at the University of Kansas (KU) showed that a high sugar diet also has a negative impact on mental health. Their results support the hypothesis that consuming foods high in sugars can trigger metabolic, inflammatory, and neurobiological processes tied to depressive illness.

“When we consume sweets, they act like a drug,” said Stephen Ilardi, PhD, KU associate professor of clinical psychology. “They have an immediate mood-elevating effect, but in high doses they can also have a paradoxical, harmful longer-term consequence of making mood worse, reducing well-being, elevating inflammation, and causing weight gain.”

Ilardi further noted, “A large subset of people with depression have high levels of systemic inflammation. When we think about inflammatory disease we think about things like diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis—diseases with a high level of systemic inflammation. We don’t normally think about depression being in that category, but it turns out that it really is—not for everyone who’s depressed, but for about half. We also know that inflammatory hormones can directly push the brain into a state of severe depression. So, an inflamed brain is typically a depressed brain. And added sugars have a pro-inflammatory effect on the body and brain.”

“It’s also been found that when people improve their diets to boost nutrition or lose weight, it can also reduce the symptoms of depression”, they commented, which suggests that depressogenic processes can be affected both by the relative absence of key nutrients and by the excessive presence of sugar.

Ilardi recommended a minimally processed diet rich in plant-based foods and omega-3 fatty acids for optimal psychological benefit. “There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to predicting exactly how any person’s body will react to any given food at any given dose,” Ilardi stated. “As a conservative guideline, probably anything above the American Heart Association guideline of 25 g of added sugars per day should be avoided.” A recent National Nutrition Survey in Singapore showed that the total daily sugar intake of the average Singaporeans is 60 grams, that is 12 teaspoons! One simple change that could have a major effect on added sugar intake is the reduction of sugar-sweetened beverages, they said.

Reis DJ, Ilardi SS, Namekata MS, Wing EK, Fowler CH. The depressogenic potential of added dietary sugars, Med Hypotheses 134 (2020) 109421