Your Favorite Snacks May Be Causing You to Feel Anxious or Depressed

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New research finds that adults who eat a diet high in ultra-processed foods are likely to report feeling mild depression and anxiety more often than those who eat less of it. Ana Luz Crespi/Stocksy
  • Researchers have found that foods like snack foods and soft drinks are linked to worse mental health.
  • People who ate more of these foods reported having mild depression more often.
  • They also reported more days of anxiety and being mentally unhealthy.
  • This could be because these foods are low in nutrients and high in sugar, researchers say.
  • Experts advise that it’s a good idea to replace ultra-processed foods with whole foods.

If you are fond of sugary drinks, processed meats, or other snack foods, you may want to re-evaluate your food choices, according to scientists at Schmidt College of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University.

Their research found that eating large amounts of ultra-processed food was linked to more adverse mental health symptoms, including more depression, anxiety, and “mentally unhealthy days.”

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines processed food as “food that has been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed in nutritional composition with fortifying, preserving or preparing in different ways.”

Processed foods are not automatically unhealthy, they say. It depends on the degree of processing.

However, the study authors note that ultra-processing of food depletes nutrients like protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, while increasing calories, sugar, saturated fat, and salt.

Previous research has found links between low-nutrient, high-sugar diets and depression, so the researchers wanted to study whether eating larger amounts of ultra-processed foods might be associated with more symptoms of mental illness.

To examine the issue, Dr. Eric Hecht and his team used a nationally representative sample of the United States population.

A total of 10,359 people ages 18 and older from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey were included.

The foods and drinks they consumed were categorized as being either: unprocessed or minimally processed, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, or ultra-processed foods. Each type of food was reported as a percentage of daily calories.

The researchers looked at measurements of depression as well as mentally unhealthy days and anxious days to see if those who ate more ultra-processed foods were more likely to report these symptoms each month.

“We found that individuals who consume higher amounts of ultra-processed food also report more undesirable mental health symptoms such as anxiety and symptoms associated with mild depression,” said Hecht.

“Our data contribute to a larger body of knowledge that suggests that diet and mental health are connected,” he added.

As to why this link between ultra-processed foods and mental illness exists, Hecht said it has to do with several factors.

“For example, diets high in ultra-processed foods often lack essential nutrients,” he noted, “and are high in added sugars, both of which have been found to be associated with adverse mental health symptoms.

Ultra-processed foods also have a variety of chemicals in them, such as emulsifiers, which might have an adverse effect on the intestinal microbiome, which in turn might lead to inflammation throughout the body, he said.

Hecht added that these findings are significant because so many Americans do eat ultra-processed foods.

The solution?

Hecht believes there should be efforts to educate the public about how ultra-processed foods affect their health, both physically and mentally. In addition, there should be information provided regarding how these foods influence a variety of health conditions.

Kristine Dilleya registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, who was not involved in the study, said that this research is important in helping us overcome the problem.

“As research shows us more about how the foods we eat can affect our bodies, we gain more tools in our nutritional toolbox that we can use to help improve our overall health and mental well-being on a daily basis,” Dilley said.

She notes that according to the study, 70% of foods in the US are classified as ultra-processed. In addition, those foods make up about 60% of the calories that people are eating.

“This high level of consumption increases the chances that the average individual will routinely miss out on eating whole or minimally processed foods that will help them be able to meet dietary recommendations for general healthy eating,” she explained.

Based on this study’s findings, she said it is important to incorporate more whole foods into your diet. “Whole foods provide many nutrients that ultra-processed foods lack, which in turn supports all of our body’s functions in order to promote health and wellness,” Dilley explained.

They are also more filling due to their higher fiber and water content, she added, which can help decrease portion sizes and eliminate excess snacking, which in turn will bring down overall caloric intake.

“Start simple by adding a piece of fruit as a snack or by adding fresh or frozen vegetables into your meals,” Dilley advised.

She also suggested looking for additional opportunities to decrease your intake of ultra-processed foods over time and limit them to only occasional use.

“Examples of ultra-processed foods would be items such as soft drinks, hot dogs, packaged cookies, or sweetened breakfast cereals,” said Dilley.