Food and Behaviour Research

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8 Foods That Contribute to Anxiety and Depression

Susan McQuillan

processed foods

Individuals reporting higher intakes of ultra-processed foods (UPF) were significantly more likely to report mild depression, more mentally unhealthy and more anxious days, according to this new study.

26/08/2022 - Psychology Today

When university and medical school researchers from North and South America* set out to explore the theory that processed foods contribute to poor mental health, they found ultra-processed foods (UPF) to be the worst offenders. Ultra-processed foods are commercially prepared convenience food products that contain little to no whole food ingredients, often lack essential nutrients, and often contain additives, such as flavorings, colorings, and other products that make the food more appealing to consumers. In other words, they in no way resemble the original food sources from which they are made.

UPF products are generally quick and easy to prepare or ready to eat out of their packaging, and they are often less expensive than whole foods, especially when they are available from generic or store brands. That helps explain why more than 70 percent of all packaged foods sold in the United States are deemed UPF, and those food products represent around 60 percent of all calories consumed in this country.
Upon review of self-reported, nationally representative dietary records of more than 10,000 men and women age 18 and older, the study authors were able to name the eight UPFs most commonly consumed. These include:

  • Sugar-sweetened drinks
  • Reconstituted meat products
  • Packaged snack foods
  • Chips
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Cookies
  • Cake
  • Bread

The researchers also collected data from the participants to measure three specific mental health symptoms: general mild depression, number of anxious days, and number of mentally unhealthy days. They found that those participants who reportedly consumed the most UPFs had a significantly higher rate of mild depression and reported significantly more anxious and mentally unhealthy days.
Previous research has found that food additives used in UPF, such as artificial sweeteners and emulsifiers, are linked to changes in the brain, increased inflammation, and altered metabolism. Other studies have found that people who lack essential nutrients in their diet and consume large amounts of food high in sugar are at significantly higher risk of developing depression and anxiety than those who eat a healthier diet, such as a Mediterranean-style diet that’s higher in natural, nutrient-rich, and less processed foods, such as seafood, vegetables, olive oil, legumes, and nuts.