Feeling blue? Could be your food choices.

Our dietitians extract a promise from every patient we see: The wheels of their cars will never again roll through a fast-food drive-up. There’s good reason for that, and it goes beyond the excessive fat and calories that are inevitable in a drive-through meal. What many of us have suspected after some regretful food choices turns out to be fact: Junk food and depression are linked.

A new study of 8,964 participants—none of whom had been previously treated for depression or had taken anti-depressants—found that those who ate processed foods were 51% more likely to develop depression.

The Spanish study was published recently in the journal Public Health Nutrition. It showed that the more junk food like packaged baked goods, French fries and hot dogs that you eat, the higher your odds of developing depression. But you don’t have to eat a lot to notice the effect: even small amounts of processed foods can make you more likely to experience depression.

According to the study, those who ate the most fast food and commercial baked goods also were more likely to be single, were less active, and ate less fruit, nuts, fish, vegetables and olive oil. Many of them smoked and worked more than 45 hours per week.

More reason to eat healthier foods

Indulging in certain foods can be less “treat” than “steep downhill slide,” according to a Today Health article featuring Gary Wenk, Ph.D., author of Your Brain on Food.

“Some foods are like gateway drugs,” Wenk says. “From your brain’s viewpoint, there is no difference.”

Just looking at or thinking about a food you love stimulates the reward center of your brain, releasing dopamine that in turn keeps you super-focused on the food you want. If you go so far as to taste it, the resulting insulin secretion relaxes your stomach muscles and makes you want to keep eating, eating, eating.

These reactions are more likely to happen with fatty and sugary foods. And so, hard as it may be, the best answer is to steer clear of them in the first place. Keeping your mind otherwise occupied is the best answer for your health, your weight, and even your happiness.

One last thing to remember: just because you cook food at home doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Chef Woody Duncan, who had weight-loss surgery years ago, used to rely on butter, salt, and sugar when he cooked. Since his surgery, he has devoted his talents to finding new ways to create tasty dishes that rely less on rich extras, meet the standards of a post-surgery diet and, yes, taste great. Find out more about Woody here, and check out his recipes here.

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