Ultra-processed food consumption may be linked to adverse mental health symptoms

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A new study found that individuals with a high intake of ultra-processed foods had significantly increased symptoms of anxiety and mild depression compared to those with a lower intake.

The study, published in Public Health Nutrition, was conducted by researchers from the Florida Atlantic University (FAU) Schmidt College of Medicine. Researchers sought to better understand the effects that ultra-processed foods have on mental health symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The study involved data on 10,359 adults aged 18 and older from the United States National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Researchers measured each participant’s level of ultra-processed food consumption as a percentage of their total calorie intake. Researchers then measured the participants amount of mentally unhealthy days, symptoms of mild depression, and anxiety using multivariable analysis.

The study’s results showed that individuals with the highest consumption of ultra-processed foods were significantly more likely to report mild depression, more mentally unhealth days, and more anxious days per month than those with the lowest intake of these foods. In addition, they were less likely to report zero mentally unhealthy days per month.

According to the study’s authors, these results suggest that ultra-processed foods may negatively impact mental health, an important finding considering the popularity of these foods.

“The ultra-processing of food depletes its nutritional value and also increases the number of calories, as ultra-processed foods tend to be high in added sugar, saturated fat and salt, while low in protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals,” said Eric Hecht, MD, PhD, corresponding author, and an affiliate associate professor in FAU’s Schmidt College of Medicine. “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.”