Sugar and Mental Health


Results from an ongoing study in London that were just published in the scientific journal “Nature” reveal that sugar consumption may have a direct impact on our mental health. The study followed approximately 10,000 individuals who were initially recruited in 1985 through 1988. Almost 70% of participants were male, while approximately 30% were female. The study has been carried out over many different phases and the results are noteworthy.

Researchers found male participants with the highest sugar intake from sweet foods and beverages had a 23% increased odds of experiencing a common mental health disorder after 5 years, even when researchers controlled for things like health behaviors, socio-demographic and diet-related factors, adiposity and other diseases.

The results for women participants were not as conclusive but the authors suggested that this is possibly because there were fewer female participants. However, there was notable evidence that sugar intake from sweet foods and beverages was associated with recurrent clinical depression in both sexes combined.

Researchers in this study hypothesized that participants with a greater risk for developing depression or other common mental disorders also had a tendency to consume more sugar. In other words, maybe people who are going to develop depression or other common mental health diseases are more likely to eat larger amounts of sugar than those who aren’t likely to experience mental health issues.  However, there was no support for this hypothesis and the observed associations were not the result of secondary changes in consumption of sugary food and drinks. Therefor the authors concluded that their study findings were consistent with the hypothesis that high sugar intake plays a causal role in the risks of both incident and recurrent depression and common mental disorders.

This study that spanned 22 years is significant because, to the authors’ best knowledge, this is the only study that has examined whether mood disorders lead to higher sugar intake instead of assuming that higher sugar intake leads to greater likelihood of developing a mood disorder. The results indicate that the assumption that higher sugar intake leads to a greater risk of developing a common mental disorder, including depression, is in fact, correct.

While these results needs to be replicated and further explored in future studies, it is reasonable to recommend a reduction in sugar intake to anyone who is currently suffering a common mental disorder, including depression and to anyone who is at risk of developing one of these disorders. Other risk factors for depression and mood disorders include having a previous episode of depression/disturbed mood and having an immediate family member who suffers from common mental illness.



About Holly Bechard

Dr. Holly Bechard is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner with over 10 years experience treating patients across the life span. She graduated in 2007 from Vanderbilt University with a master's degree in psychiatric nursing and earned her doctorate in education from Lipscomb University in 2015. She has worked in community health settings, private practice and has taught in both undergraduate and graduate nursing programs. She is currently an adjunct faculty member at the University of San Diego and serves in a clinical role for WellPsyche Medical Group in La Jolla, California.