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.