Munching potato chips, donuts, sugar-sweetened drinks and other highly-refined carbohydrates can increase your chances of becoming depressed, especially if you’re a woman older than 50, reports a new study from Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The research is surprising since indulging in much-loved refined carbohydrates like ice-cream or peach cobbler is a time-honored way of dealing with depression.

JGI  Jamie Grill

JGI Jamie Grill

To understand the impact of refined carbohydrates on mood, researchers in CUMC’s department of psychiatry studied the effects of eating foods that score high on the glycemic index (GI) in a group of 70,000 post-menopausal women. They found that the higher the consumption of high GI foods — sugars and refined grains such as white rice — the more likely the women were to become depressed.

Older women in the study with diets higher in fiber, whole grains, vegetables, and non-juice fruits (unrefined carbohydrates) had a lower risk of depression. The study is important for black women because millions of us suffer with undiagnosed and often untreated depression. The study also suggests that it would be easy to get caught in a vicious circle of eating junk food to deal with depression and then becoming even more depressed.

Eating for Happiness

Highly-refined carbohydrates, or high-GI carbohydrates, are foods that are processed so that they are stripped of just about everything but digestible starches that are essentially sugar. When you eat them (think of pigging out on pop tarts, cake, cheese doodles, or similar snacks), your body processes the carbohydrate very quickly causing a rapid rise in your blood sugar.

The GI scale goes from 0-100 and measures the amount of sugar found in the blood after eating a certain foods. A low GI score is considered 55 or below. Refined foods such as cookies (vanilla wafers score 77) trigger a hormonal response in your body as your system struggles to get your rising blood sugar under control. You might do better with a handful of peanuts, they score at a very low 14, but steer clear of popcorn — a favorite diet snack — it’s at 72. Why? Popcorn is high in fiber, but corn is very high in sugar.

When your body fights to deal with a highly-refined carbohydrate, the response may also cause or exacerbate mood changes, fatigue, and other aspects of depression.

If you want to eat to elevate your spirits choose fresh vegetables, whole-grains, and fruits that are high in fiber, like apples. Avoid cake, cookies, chips, white sugar, and white flour. Your mood and your waistline (low-carb diets are also a great way to lose weight) will thank you.