Processed foods are a ubiquitous part of Western diets. The vast majority of packaged foods in the U.S. are processed. In fact, they are actually ultra-processed, which are foods made from compounds extracted from existing foods and often contain additional, artificial additives. Think: soft drinks, frozen chicken nuggets, and different kinds of candy. Basically, they contain little “whole food” ingredients. Creating ultra-processed foods requires several chemical processes, which leaves them with high calorie counts and low nutritional value. And unfortunately, the majority of calories eaten by Americans come from ultra-processed foods. This reliance on ultra processed foods has also been blamed for the constant rise in rate of heart disease, for example.
But in addition to impacting our physical health, new research shows that ultra-processed foods can have a significant impact on our mood and mental health. Researchers from Florida Atlantic University recently studied the effects of ultra-processed foods on mental states. Their work is published in a recent article in Public Health Nutrition.
Researchers highlighted a lack of consistent data about the relationship between ultra-processed foods and mental health, particularly experiences with anxiety and general mentally unwell days. Participants were recruited from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. In all, about 10,000 adults over the age of 18 were included in the study.
During the study, researchers classified the foods participants ate using the NOVA food classification, a system adopted by the United Nations that categorizes food from either unprocessed or minimally processed to-ultra processed.
Overall findings confirmed that people who ate more ultra-processed food were more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, and feeling “mentally unwell” compared to those who ate the least amount of ultra-processed foods.
These findings reinforce how important diet is to both physical and mental health. Given an alarming increase in mental illness since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, paying more attention to the foods we eat is more important than ever.
Sources: Science Daily; Public Health Nutrition; Harvard