Are Soda Drinkers More Likely to Become Depressed?

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Your favorite bubbly beverage could be a real bummer.

New research suggests that sweetened beverage consumption—of diet drinks, especially--is associated with an increased risk of depression among older adults.

The study, which will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 65th Annual Meeting in March, evaluated the beverage consumption of more than 263,000 adults between the age of 50 and 71. The researchers looked at consumption of soda, tea, fruit punch, and coffee between 1995 and 1996. About 10 years later the scientists asked the participants whether they had been diagnosed with depression since 2000, and 11,311 subjects reported that they had.

The individuals who drank more than four cans of soda a day were 30 percent more likely to develop depression than people who did not drink sweetened beverages, and people who drank more than four cups of fruit punch a day were even worse off, with a 38 percent greater likelihood of becoming depressed.

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“Sweetened beverages, coffee and tea are commonly consumed worldwide and have important physical—and may have important mental—health consequences,” said study author Honglei Chen, MD, PhD, with the National Institutes of Health in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, in a press release.

What’s more, the risk appeared to be more substantial for people who drank diet soda, fruit punch, or iced tea. Those who gulped four or more diet sodas a day were 31 percent more likely to become depressed than people who did not drink sweetened beverages, and those who downed more than four diet fruit punch drinks had a 51 percent greater risk. (Related: 7 Disgusting Side Effects of Diet Soda) When they looked at specific ingredients, researchers found that the group with the highest intake of aspartame (a sweetener found in diet drinks) had a 36 percent increased risk of depression, while the group with the highest caffeine intake was associated with a 17 percent lower risk.

However, New York City-based dietitian and author of The Small Change Diet Keri Gans cautions that there are many factors outside of your Diet Coke can that could contribute to depression, including overall health, diet, and frequency of exercise. “If somebody’s drinking a lot of soda, it might mean his overall diet isn’t the healthiest,” she says. “Look at your diet soda intake and what it’s replacing. If it’s replacing a nutritious beverage like milk or water, it might not be the best drink of choice, but an occasional diet soda won’t kill you.”

Now for the good news: Drinking coffee was associated with lower risk of developing depression. Participants who guzzled four cups of java a day were 10 percent less likely to be diagnosed with depression than non-coffee drinkers.

Looking at specific ingredients, the researchers found that the group with the highest intake of aspartame had a 36 percent increased risk of depression, while the highest intake of caffeine was associated with a 17 percent lower risk.

“Our research suggests that cutting out or down on sweetened diet drinks or replacing them with unsweetened coffee may naturally help lower your depression risk,” said Chen. “More research is needed to confirm these findings, and people with depression should continue to take depression medications prescribed by their doctors.”

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“I feel the ultimate goal is to go for water. That would be the ideal situation,” Gans says. “It’s all about the small change. If someone is drinking regular soda and needs to go to diet to get off regular, drinking diet soda could be a positive step.”

If water is unappealing to you--or you need some healthy beverages to help ween yourself off of diet soda--check out these 12 Ways to Make Water Less Boring.

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