Do we really need a study to tell us that the more highly processed food we eat, the more it causes an unhealthy mindset?
Maybe we really do.
Since the early 1990s, consumption of processed food has been on the rise, and consumption of whole food has been declining. If there is a message that processed food is bad for us, we don’t get that message. Processed food consumption is rising in children and adolescents, as well as in adults. In a study from 2001 to 2018 that analyzed the self-reported dietary data of more than 40,000 adults in the United States, results showed a significant increase from study start to end in the amount of food adults ate—from 53.5% in 2001 to nearly 60%. in 2018. Given that people tend to overestimate how healthy their diets are (according to a recent study of 9,700 people, 85% of whom thought they were eating more healthily than they actually were), I suspect the amount of superfood intake What the average American eats today is greater – perhaps much greater – than 60%.
This is a mental health disaster, in my opinion, and you’ll soon see why. But before we get into the ramifications, let’s look at exactly what ultra-processed foods, or UPFs, are.
Most foods are processed to some extent. Foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds must be harvested and prepared for consumption and sale. Regular processed foods need a little more preparation—things like olive oil, applesauce, white rice, whole-wheat bread, cheese, and canned tuna, altered in some way before packaging. Oil should be extracted, apple juice cooked and mashed, white rice hulled and dried, bread and bread made and so on.
But ultra-processed foods go beyond these simple preparation steps. These are foods that are not only minimally prepared but so processed that they contain many additives and hardly resemble what they used to be. Examples include soft drinks, frozen pizza, candy, potato chips and other salty snacks, canned soups, doughnuts, packaged baked goods and most cold breakfast cereals.
More specifically when it comes to health, ultra-processed foods tend to include a lot of problematic ingredients. For one thing, UPFs contain more sugar, oil, and salt than are good for the human body. We also messed with these components. Making sugar from high fructose corn syrup is linked to liver damage and diabetes as well as heart disease, obesity, and a general metabolic disorder. Frequent heating of vegetable oils to make fried food is associated with an increased risk of cancer.
As for salt, no matter what form you use, it can be dangerous to your health. A 2022 study of more than half a million people, conducted by the European Society of Cardiology, showed that people who always add extra salt to their food at the table were more likely to die during the study from any cause, and their life expectancy was lower, compared to those who Their food was rarely or never salted. Just imagine, then, the daily impact of consuming very high amounts of salt in ultra-processed foods!
On top of all of these well-studied issues, UPFs are also full of chemicals: things like artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives, which come with health effects we’re only just beginning to discover. For one thing, food additives may negatively affect the important balance of bacteria in the human gut microbiome, which are very beneficial for maintaining a healthy digestive system, immune system, and central nervous system.
Most of us are aware, at least on a peripheral level, of the chronic disease risks of eating too many processed foods. But what about mental health risks? What does it mean for the future of our physical and mental health that for most Americans, about 60% of all calories consumed come from processed foods? Numerous different studies have linked ultra-processed foods to an increased risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, many different types of cancer, high cholesterol, and more. But a new study out this summer looked specifically at consumption of ultra-processed foods as it relates to mental health.
I’ve been talking a lot and writing about the relationship between diet and mental health lately, so I was interested to see what this study had to say, and it certainly aligns with what I’ve seen clinically. This study measured the percentage of total calories that came from UPFs in more than 10,000 adults ages 18 and older. The result: Those with the highest percentage of UPF consumption were Significantly More likely to report at least mild depression, more anxious days, and more “mentally unhealthy” days per month. They were also huge less They are likely to report zero unhealthy or anxious days per month.
This can happen through many channels. For one thing, mental and physical health are inseparable. When the physical body is not functioning properly, the central nervous system suffers, and when the brain is not functioning properly, mental health issues can quickly become an issue. This can happen, for example, with nutrient deficiencies, such as low levels of B vitamins, magnesium, iron, zinc, and vitamin D, which have been linked to mood issues, anxiety, and depression. UPFs are notably low in nutrients, so this is likely a major contributor: The more UPFs you eat, the less likely you are to get the nutrients you need for healthy brain function.
Other research has also shown how certain dietary patterns may prevent or solve mental health problems, such as eating a Mediterranean diet, or how mental health can be improved by reducing certain dietary components, such as sugar (linked to depression) or saturated fat (linked to anxiety). ).
What’s new about this study is that it looks at the effect of UPFs as a whole. It may not matter what kind of ultra-processed food you eat.
In general, the more processed foods, the worse it is for your mental health.
Something to consider in this study: Do people have mentally unhealthy days because they eat junk food, or do they eat junk food because they have mentally unhealthy days? From what I can tell, the study didn’t really provoke this, but my suspicion is that this is a feedback loop: Fast food can lead to mood disorders, which can lead to cravings for more junk food. Regardless of the mechanism, the problem only gets worse. Bottom line, we know fast food is mentally unhealthy And the Physically, the more you eat, the worse.
Fortunately, there is a simple solution: eat more whole foods. Other studies have shown that a complete diet with minimally processed foods, especially fruits and vegetables, can improve mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. One 2022 study showed that eating more fruits and vegetables was associated with reduced anxiety, feeling less stressed, and feeling more happy.
Isn’t that what we all really want? To feel less stress and more joy? Ironically, this is often the goal when people choose ultra-processed foods, however, as it turns out, these foods have exactly the opposite effect. For a true blend of vibrant health, stress relief, and joy, choose whole foods, including plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, rather than processed junk food. The pleasures of fast food are short-lived, and the stakes are high.The pleasures of real, whole food, the way nature made it, are real medicine for your mental health.
Related: For more from Dr. Stephenson, listen to her keynote speech at the virtual event Naturally Informed Mental Wellness: Mastering the Market. And to view more informative and educational sessions from this Naturally Informed virtual event, register for free on-demand access.