Summary: Consuming large amounts of processed foods can greatly affect mental health, increasing the risk of anxiety and depression.
Do you love those sugar-sweetened drinks, recycled meat products, and packaged snacks? You may want to reconsider based on a new study that explored whether individuals who consume higher amounts of ultra-processed foods experience more negative mental health symptoms.
Although ultra-processed foods are convenient, low-cost, and quick to prepare or ready-to-eat, these synthetic formulations of processed foods (oils, fats, sugars, starch, and protein isolates) contain little or no whole food.
They are the result of extensive “physical, biological and chemical processes” that produce food products deficient in the original and natural food. Ultra-processed foods typically include flavorings, colourings, emulsifiers, and other cosmetic additives.
While there is some evidence regarding consumption of ultra-processed foods and depression, data is sparse regarding other adverse mental health symptoms including anxiety and unhealthy mental days.
Researchers from Florida Atlantic University Schmidt School of Medicine and collaborators explored a nationally representative sample of the US population to determine whether individuals who consume large amounts of ultra-processed foods report more negative mental health symptoms including depression, anxiety, and unhealthy mental days.
They measured mild depression, the number of mentally unhealthy days, and the number of anxious days in 10,359 adults 18 years of age or older from the United States National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
The results of the study published in the journal public health nutritionshowed that individuals who ate the most highly processed foods compared to those who consumed the least had statistically significant increases in adverse mental health symptoms of mild depression, ‘mentally unhealthy days’ and ‘anxiety days’.
They also had significantly lower rates of reporting ‘mentally unhealthy days’ and zero ‘anxiety days’.
The results from this study are generalizable to the entire United States as well as other Western countries that have similar intakes of highly processed foods.
“Ultra-processing foods deplete their nutritional value and also increase their calorie count, as ultra-processed foods tend to be high in added sugar, saturated fat and salt, while being low in protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals,” said Eric Hecht, Ph.D. Medicine, PhD, interview author and associate professor at FAU’s Schmidt School of Medicine.
More than 70 percent of packaged foods in the United States are classified as ultra-processed foods and account for about 60 percent of all calories consumed by Americans. Given the magnitude of exposure and the effects of ultra-processed food consumption, our study has significant clinical and public health implications.”
The researchers used the NOVA food classification for the study, a widely used system recently approved by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. NOVA takes into account the nature, extent, and purpose of food processing in order to classify foods and beverages into four groups: unprocessed or minimally processed foods, processed cooking ingredients, processed foods and highly processed foods.
Charles H. said: Henkins, MD, PH, co-author, first Sir Richard Dole Professor of Medicine, and Senior Academic Adviser, FAU Schmidt College of Medicine.
“Analytical epidemiological research is needed to test the many hypotheses that have been formulated from these metadata.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 1 in 5 adults has a mental illness. Mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety, are major causes of illness, disability, and death.
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“Cross-sectional examination of ultra-processed food consumption and adverse mental health symptomsWritten by Eric M Hecht et al. public health nutrition
Cross-sectional examination of ultra-processed food consumption and adverse mental health symptoms
To explore whether individuals who consume higher amounts of ultra-processed foods (UPF) experience more detrimental mental health symptoms.
Using a cross-sectional design, we measured UPF consumption as a percentage of total energy intake in kcal using the NOVA food classification system. We explored whether individuals who consumed higher amounts of UPF were more likely to report mild depression, more mentally unhealthy days, and more anxious days per month using multivariate analyzes that adjusted for potential confounding variables.
Representative sample from the United States National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 2007 and 2012.
10,359 adults over 18 years of age with no history of cocaine, methamphetamine, or heroin abuse.
After adjusting for covariates, individuals with the highest level of UPF consumption were more likely to report at least mild depression (OR: 1 81; 95% CI1 09, 3 02), more mentally ill (hazard ratio (RR) : 1 22; 95% CI 1 18, 1 25) and more anxious days per month (RR: 1 19; 95% CI 1 16, 1 23). They were also less likely to report anything mentally unhealthy (OR: 0 60; 95% CI 0 41, 0 88) or anxious days (odds ratio: 0; 65; 95% CI 0 47, 0 90).
Individuals who reported higher UPF intakes were more likely to report mild depression, mentally unhealthy and more anxious days, and less likely to report any unhealthy or anxious days. These data add important information to a growing body of evidence regarding the potentially harmful effects of UPF consumption on mental health.