Is Eating Ultra-Processed Foods Ruining Your Mood?

By Jiri Kaloc

Who doesn’t like cookies, chips or breakfast cereal? Unfortunately, evidence that they are not very good for us is mounting. A new study connects eating these types of ultra-processed foods with more adverse mental health symptoms. Let’s take a closer look to see how much these foods can influence your mood.

What are ultra-processed foods?

First, let’s get a clearer idea of what ultra-processed foods actually are. The study we will take a look at used the following definition.

“Ultra-processed foods are industrial formulations of processed food substances (oils, fats, sugars, starch, protein isolates) that contain little or no whole food and typically include flavourings, colourings, emulsifiers and other cosmetic additives.”

This may sound like a complicated definition but the foods that fall into this category couldn’t be more familiar. Here are some popular examples.

  • Cookies, candy, chocolate bars
  • Sausages, salami
  • Chips
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Instant soup, pre-made pasta and pizza
  • Soda, sweetened beverages, alcoholic beverages

Why are ultra-processed foods problematic?

The “ultra-processing” that these foods get makes them low cost, ready-to-eat, and really tasty. Unfortunately, it also depletes their nutritional value because the processing removes fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and protein. It also often results in them containing more calories, sugar, and saturated fat. If you’re wondering: yes, low in all of the healthy stuff and high in all of the problematic stuff. Over 70% of packaged foods in the USA are classified as ultra-processed and represent approximately 60% of all consumed calories. Similar numbers are also found in Europe and many other developed parts of the world, which makes ultra-processed foods a widespread problem.

A connection between ultra-processed foods and mental health

Researchers from Florida Atlantic University decided to find out if people that consume high amounts of ultra-processed foods report significantly more adverse mental health symptoms including depression, anxiety and mentally unhealthy days.

They found that those who consumed the most ultra-processed foods had more symptoms of mild depression and reported more “mentally unhealthy days” and “anxious days” compared to those who consumed the least amount of those foods.

“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. Analytic epidemiologic research is needed to test the many hypotheses formulated from these descriptive data,” said Charles H. Hennekens, co-author of the study.

It may be some time before we fully understand the impact of ultra-processed food on our mood and mental health. But even studies like this one may be a good reason to try and opt for more real foods.