Junk food

(Photo by Tim Samuel from Pexels)

BOCA RATON, Fla. — Eating ultra-processed foods could be the cause behind many cases of anxiety and depression, a new study explains. Researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s Schmidt College of Medicine say they have found a connection between consuming too much junk food and more adverse mental health symptoms.

“Ultra-processed” is another way of saying these products are typically manufactured and ready-to-eat when they come out of their wrappers. They are generally convenient, cheap, quick to prepare, and consist of industrial formulations of oils, fats, sugars, starch, and protein isolates. Processed foods also often contain flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers, and other cosmetic additives. What they don’t contain a lot of is whole food and nutrition.

Common examples of these products include sugary drinks like soda, fast food, potato chips, candy, pastries packed with sugar, and processed meats like burgers and sausages.

Researchers say there have been previous studies that found a link between consuming ultra-processed food and depression, but few reports have examined the total number of poor mental health days people experience have eating junk food. The new study looked at a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults to see if consuming more ultra-processed food increases the number of mentally unhealthy days people have.

The team measured cases of mild depression, the number of mental unhealthy days, and the number of anxious days among 10,359 adults 18 and older who participated in the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Junk food leads to more ‘anxious’ days

Results reveal Americans who consumed the highest amounts of ultra-processed foods reported having significantly more “mentally unhealthy days” and “anxious days” in comparison to people who generally avoid these foods.

People who regularly eat junk food were also far less likely to have zero “mentally unhealthy days” and zero “anxious days.” The team believes their findings apply to people living throughout the United States as well as people living in other “Western” countries which share a similar diet.

“The ultra-processing of food depletes its nutritional value and also increases the number of calories, as ultra-processed foods tend to be high in added sugar, saturated fat and salt, while low in protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals,” says corresponding author Eric Hecht, M.D., Ph.D., an affiliate associate professor in FAU’s Schmidt College of Medicine, in a university release.

“More than 70 percent of packaged foods in the U.S. are classified as ultra-processed food and represent about 60 percent of all calories consumed by Americans. Given the magnitude of exposure to and effects of ultra-processed food consumption, our study has significant clinical and public health implications.”

Study authors note that they used the NOVA food classification during their research. This system was recently adopted by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. NOVA examines the nature, extent, and purpose of food processing before categorizing foods and beverages into four groups: unprocessed or minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, and ultra-processed foods.

The findings appear in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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  1. Keith Schneider says:

    It could be the case that people who are anxious or depressed don’t have the energy to prepare a healthy meal, or maybe eating junk food makes them feel better. So it could be the case that the mental health issues are promoting the unhealthy eating, rather than the poor diet causing mental health issues.

    1. Frank Shooster says:

      There’s zero indication of causation in this article. Does junk food lead to anxiety or does anxiety lead to junk food? Or is it symbiotic? Maybe just a coincidence, though the latter seems less likely given the extent of the correlation.

    2. Edward Auchincloss says:

      Based on the science, unless one is especially fortunate, a lifetime of eating junk ultimately produces a disease-ridden body. Much of what ails people is what they put into their bodies. Health care is considered a ‘right’ but the obverse of that-avoiding stuff that will ultimately kill you-is paid scant attention, costing the economy trillions.

  2. John Ross says:

    This is so dumb. Just say that junk food is not a healthy food group and to not overdo it!

  3. Woody says:

    Does it occur to them that depressed and anxious people are more likely to eat junk food?

  4. Gary says:

    I had numerous chronic health issues for many years before I discovered they were all tied to ultra-processed food, and MSG turns out to be the primary source of my problems. After loosing my sight one day and was rushed to hospital with a suspected stroke, the neurologist later informed me that she tells all her patients “Zero processed food”.
    Look for “Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills” by Russell L. Blaylock
    The complete remission of my very bad asthma/emphysema was truly a breath of fresh air!

  5. C Carroll says:

    This strikes me as a corelation does not infer causation argument. Sure, they eat junk food. Often because it is cheaper, more readily available and fast calories which are needed when working low income jobs with few breaks. The mental health issues come from the situations under the junk food, terrible work and life conditions

  6. Eric says:

    I go to Taco Bell as my relaxation routine. Always works, always helps.

  7. Bubba says:

    After being diagnosed as a Type 2 diabetic, I began eating healthy out of necessity. I cut out all sugar and limited carbohydrates. I was eating a lot of junk before but made big changes in my diet. My depression disappeared and my anxiety levels dropped dramatically. I think there may be something to this diet – mental health link.