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Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to Mental Health Issues

We know that ultra-processed foods are physically bad for us. A whole host of recent studies concur in that point. But now a new university study reveals that eating processed food is linked to depression, anxiety and other mental health issues…

depression - © aboutmybrain.comUltra-processed now linked to anxiety, depression, other mental health issues…

The report on a study by researchers at Florida Atlantic University starts by reminding us that, “According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 1 in 5 [U.S] adults live with a mental illness. Mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety, are leading causes of morbidity [suffering from a disease], disability and mortality [death].”

It goes on to say that there is a significant amount of anecdotal and subjective evidence linking ultra-processed foods with mental health disorders. Researchers at SAU wanted to see of they could find scientific evidence to support that contention.

What they did

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

Researchers used the NOVA food classification for the study, which is a widely used system recently adopted by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. NOVA considers the nature, extent and purpose of food processing in order to categorize foods and beverages into four groups: unprocessed or minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods and ultra-processed foods.

What they found

The study reports stat5es: “Individuals who consumed the most ultra-processed foods, as compared with those who consumed the least amount, had statistically significant increases in the adverse mental health symptoms of mild depression, ‘mentally unhealthy days’ and ‘anxious days’. They also had significantly lower rates of reporting zero ‘mentally unhealthy days’ and zero ‘anxious days’.

Findings from this study are generalizable to the entire U.S. as well as other Western countries with similar ultra-processed food intakes. That means most of Europe and North America.

The takeaway

“The ultra-processing of food depletes its nutritional value and also increases the number of calories. […] Ultra-processed foods tend to be high in added sugar, saturated fat and salt, while low in protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals,” said Dr. Eric Hecht, corresponding author for the study.The good components that processing removes from food are generally those that protect and strengthen the body against disease.

“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.”

“Data from this study add important and relevant information to a growing body of evidence concerning the adverse effects of ultra-processed consumption on mental health symptoms,” said Dr. Charles H. Hennekens, M.D., Dr.PH, co-author of the report. “Analytic epidemiologic research is needed to test the many hypotheses formulated from these descriptive data.”

My take

The unspoken but crystal clear takeaway from the study is, “Don’t pollute your body with processed and ultra-processed foods! They not only damage your physical health by erode your mental health, as well!”

I’ve noticed that the ascent in popularity of processed foods over the past several decades has coincided with a general souring of society. Symptoms I’ve noted include a tendency not to socialize as much at the community level as we used to, an important cultural dynamic. Folks have erected shields, developed abiding suspicions of ‘the outside world’, and no longer even know their neighbors. Increases in negative social tendencies, including racism, anti-semitism, conspiracy theorizing, road rage, vicious street mobbings, police beatings, and – in the U.S., at least – mass shootings have also increased.

Now I wonder how much of this overall, general, systemic erosion of western society can be attributed to the rise of processed and ultra-processed foods…

~ Maggie J.