Men who consume a lot of added sugar have an increased risk of anxiety and depression, according to a new study – but the same link does not exist in women.
A team of researchers from University College London (UCL) investigated common mental health problems and sugar in the diet of a group of 5,000 men and 2,000 women, who had been recruited for the 1980s Whitehall II study.
These participants regularly completed questionnaires on their health and lifestyle over the last few decades, which included information on their diet and mental health. They also attended clinical appointments to have their height and weight assessed.
While the researchers discovered a strong link between a high sugar consumption and depression in men, they found nothing to suggest that men were eating more sugary foods because of being depressed.
The men with the highest sugar intake (more than 67g daily) had a 23 per cent increased risk of suffering a common mental disorder after five years, compared to men who had the lowest intake (less than 39.5g daily).
In the UK, the average man consumes 68.4g of sugar every day, according to a 2013 National Diet and Nutrition Survey.
“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,” said Anika Knüppel, lead author of the study.
“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. More research is needed to test the sugar-depression effect in large population samples.
“There is increasing evidence for the physical damage sugar has on our health. Our work suggests an additional mental health effect. This further supports the evidence for policy action such as the new sugary levy in the UK, but this is not addressed in many other European countries.”
Knüppel said there had been at least three other studies in the past which supported the findings of the UCL study.
However, numerous experts stressed the need for more research, and urged caution over the latest findings.
Catherine Collins, of the British Dietetic Association, said: “Whilst the findings as reported are interesting, the dietary analysis makes it impossible to justify the bold claims made by the researchers about sugar and depression in men.
“More surprising is the lack of reported effect in women, who have a far more emotional relationship with food.
“Reducing intake of free sugars is good for your teeth, and may be good for your weight too. But as protection against depression? It’s not proven.”
The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.