Ultra-Processed Foods: The Culprit Behind Your Anxiety and Blues


People are commonly fond of things that make their lives easy and convenient. Hence, the creation of convenience stores, easy-open cans, automatic doors, automatic cleaners, and much more. In terms of food, people also found a way to make meal preparations fast and convenient by eating out in fast food restaurants or buying those heavily processed, ready-to-cook/eat foods available at any grocery.

Ultra-processed foods have the advantages of convenience, low cost, ease of preparation, or ready-to-eat, but these industrial formulations of processed food substances contain little to no whole food. Unbeknownst to most, the influence of dietary patterns extends beyond keeping the body in shape and ensuring it receives the right nutrients; it also includes one’s mental health.

Bad dietary patterns which lack essential nutrients, have a high glycaemic index, and are high in added sugars may result in negative mental health symptoms. Concerning this, a recent study published online by Cambridge University Press stated that adults who consume ultra-processed food report more unfavorable mental symptoms. We will highlight some of its most crucial findings to gain a deeper insight into this study.

The Effects of Ultra-Processed Food Consumption on Mental Health Issues

Ultra-processed foods are significantly altered products mostly made from substances extracted from foods, including fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats. They may also contain additives like artificial colors, flavors, stabilizers, and other ingredients you wouldn’t add when cooking at home.

Despite several pieces of evidence about the consumption of ultra-processed food and depression, there is still a lack of data on adverse mental health symptoms, including anxiety and mentally unhealthy days.

Hence, researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s Schmidt College of Medicine and collaborators aimed to bridge the gap on the lack of data regarding ultra-processed food and adverse mental health symptoms by investigating a nationally representative sample of the U. S. population.

They aim to determine if individuals who consume high amounts of ultra-processed foods have more substantial unfavorable mental health symptoms, including depression, anxiety, and mentally unhealthy days.

They measured mild depression, the number of mentally unhealthy days, and anxious days among 10,359 adults aged 18 and above from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

The researchers used the NOVA food classification for the study, a widely used system recently adopted by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. NOVA considers the nature, extent, and purpose of food processing to categorize foods and beverages into four groups, including unprocessed or minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, and ultra-processed foods.

After a thorough examination of their data, the researchers found that:

  • Those who consumed the most ultra-processed foods than those who consumed the least had statistically significant increases in the adverse mental health symptoms of mild depression, “mentally unhealthy days,” and “anxious days.”
  • Individuals who consumed the most ultra-processed foods also had significantly lower rates of reporting zero “mentally unhealthy days” and zero “anxious days.”

Reason Why Ultra-Processed Foods Are Unhealthy

The researchers contend that because ultra-processed foods frequently have high levels of added sugar, saturated fat, and salt and low levels of protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, ultra-processing reduces the nutritional value of food and also increases the number of calories in them.

According to another source, food additives found in ultra-processed foods, such as emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners, can cause pathophysiological changes that are linked to symptoms of mental illness, such as decreased glucose tolerance, elevated levels of inflammatory mediators, oxidative stress, and neuroinflammation.

The data from the new study provides further support to the impact of ultra-processed food on elevating mental health symptoms by adding important and relevant information to its growing body of evidence. 

Based on this, it can be suggested that people should be more conscious of what they eat. The new study further strengthens the importance of eating fresh and healthy foods to keep their body and mind healthy. 

So the next time you think about microwaving that cold pizza in your refrigerator, try to think twice and put a little more effort into preparing a freshly cooked and healthy meal for yourself instead.

Journal Reference

Hecht, E. M., Rabil, A., Martinez Steele, E., Abrams, G. A., Ware, D., Landy, D. C., & Hennekens, C. H. (2022). Cross-sectional examination of ultra-processed food consumption and adverse mental health symptoms. Public Health Nutrition, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1368980022001586 

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