Mental Health Month: Aspartame, Mood, and Moderation

May is Mental Health Month and I’ve been getting questions about food’s effect on mental health, especially junk food.  

One common question is, “Do diet drinks affect the brain and cause depression?” 

Yes. 

 In particular, the artificial sweetener aspartame, found in diet soda, is often blamed. 

Aspartame has been studied for its potential effects on the nervous system, including mood. Unfortunately, two studies have found that drinking aspartame-containing beverages increased risk of depression and one study also worsened symptoms in those who already had diagnosed depression. 

 If aspartame causes depression, why do you say, "Everything in moderation?" 

One single can of diet soda doesn't cause depression. One teaspoon of aspartame in your tea or coffee doesn't cause your existing depression to worsen.  Even one can of soda a day in addition to one teaspoon of aspartame added to coffee or tea each day would be below the levels of aspartame consumed in the studies.  
The American Cancer Society did the math and found "an adult weighing 165 pounds would have to drink more than 19 cans of diet soda a day or consume more than 107 packets to go over the recommended level."

 If I want to avoid aspartame, what else can I drink instead?

If you usually add aspartame to your tea or coffee,  switching to sugar or honey may be good choices. Or, switch to unsweetened tea or coffee.

If you normally consume aspartame in diet soda, diet lemonade, or other diet drinks, look for a brand without aspartame. More and more diet products are being made with stevia instead of aspartame. Stevia is a naturally sweet plant which may do less harm than aspartame, which is a chemical. 

Of course, you can cut out diet drinks altogether.  Water is always a good choice. You can flavor your own water by adding fruit or mint leaves or you can buy unsweetened flavored water. Other low-calorie flavorful options include kombucha, probiotic water, and drinking vinegar. 
   
Will avoiding aspartame prevent depression?

Avoiding aspartame doesn't guarantee you won't get depression. Depression can be caused by a number of factors, not just aspartame. Genetics or family history of mental health diagnoses has a big effect, for example.   

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