US teens who eat lots of fast food may be more at-risk for depression, small study suggests  


US teens who eat lots of fast food may be more at-risk for depression, small study suggests

  • Researchers asked teenagers about their depression and analyzed their urine for levels of sodium and potassium
  • Teens with high levels of sodium and low levels of potassium were much more likely to report being depressed in the last year
  • Sodium likely indicated a diet high in fatty foods while low potassium likely meant a lack of fruits and vegetables
  • Depression rates among US teens has risen from 8% in 2007 to 13% in 2017

A diet rich in fast food and unhealthy snacks could increase the risk of teenage depression, a new small study suggests. 

Middle- and high-schoolers were much more likely to report being depressed if they had urine with high levels of sodium – indicating a diet high in processed foods – and low levels of potassium – meaning an absence of produce and whole grains.  

Levels of both depression and obesity have been skyrocketing among American teens over the last decade. 

The team, from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), says the findings indicate that feeding kids a better diet could be used as a complement to traditional treatments to treat depressive symptoms. 

The prevalence of depression among US teenagers has been slowly rising over the last 10 years.

A Pew Research Center poll that, in 2017, 13 percent of American teens between ages 12 and 17 said they had experienced at least one major depressive episode in the last year, up from eight percent in 2007.

‘[This underscores] the importance of identifying contributing factors and developing new prevention strategies,’ the authors wrote. 

For the study, published in the journal Physiological Reports, the team recruited 84 teenagers, most of whom were African-American.

The participants self-reported their depressive symptoms at the start of the study and a year-and-a-half later.

Questions were taken from the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Short Depression Scale.

Teens were asked to rate statements such as ‘I had trouble keeping my mind on what I was doing’ or ‘I felt fearful’  on a scale from ‘rarely or none of the time’ to ‘all of the time’.

They also gave urine samples so the team could analyze levels of sodium and potassium.

Researchers found that a combination of high sodium and low potassium levels was the best predictor of more frequent depressive symptoms being reported a year-and-a-half later. 

Teens who reported being depressed were likely eating a lot of fast food and snacks and not many fruits and vegetables. 

‘Interventions are needed to ensure adolescents are receiving proper nutrition to decrease their risk of depression,’ said co-author Dr Sylbie Mrug, chair of the department of psychology at UAB. 

‘Food such as fruits, vegetables and yogurt contain low of levels of sodium and high amounts of potassium and should be encouraged as part of a teen’s daily diet.’ 

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The team added that a poor diet may not be the cause of depression, but it could indicate the presence of other contributing factors.

Poor diets are often consumed by low-income families, who could be grappling with a lack of access to healthcare or resources. 

This is not the first time research has linked an unhealthy diet to symptoms of depression.

A 2018 review of several studies from Manchester Metropolitan University in England found that a diet high in cholesterol and saturated fats – which cause inflammation – increased the risk of developing depression. 

And a study earlier this year from Loma Linda University in California found that adults who ate an unhealthy diet were more likely to report symptoms of moderate or severe psychological distress compared to those who followed a healthy diet. 



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