Ultra-processed food or highly processed food are identified as predisposing factors for various medical conditions but did you know that they impact mental health too? Recent studies have traced a link showing that the more processed food one eats, the higher the chances of one feeling low, anxious or depressed and slipping into cognitive decline.
A study in 2022 of over 10,000 adults in the US showed that the more ultra-processed foods participants ate, the more likely they were to report mild depression or feelings of anxiety. “There was a significant increase in mentally unhealthy days for those eating 60 per cent or more of their calories from ultra-processed foods. This is not proof of causation, but we can say that there seems to be an association,” Dr Hecht, the study’s author, said as quoted by The New York Times. Another study last year followed 11,000 Brazilian adults over a decade and found that eating ultra-processed foods impaired their cognitive function or their ability to learn, remember, analyse and interpret by as high as 28 per cent!
So, what’s the logic behind this finding? Ultra-processed foods are low in fibre, which feed the good bacteria in the gut and help in production of short-chain fatty acids, which in turn play an important role in brain function. Even additives like artificial sweeteners and emulsifiers impact gut health. Poor gut health leads to chronic inflammation, which accelerates depression.
Clearly young people are at a greater risk of such disorders because of constant exposure to freely available and low cost ultra-processed and processed foods. Even frozen foods feature in this category as more and more working people use them to rustle up a quick meal during a time crunch. Combine this with a stressful lifestyle that promotes sedentary habits and decreased sleep and you have a recipe for ill health. The concept of stress-eating has evolved only from having processed foods which give you instant comfort.
Also, the quick fix solutions that packaged food provides mean young people lack control on their impulses and cannot deny craving or delay their gratification.
We have also found that a higher intake of ultra-processed foods is associated with various depressive symptoms. This means that young adults show difficulty in controlling the impulses for smoking, drinking and screen time. This is a combination of addictions. The question is do they all have the same neural pathways in terms of addiction behaviour and psychological issues? Previously many studies have also shown an association between these kinds of food and anxiety and sleep difficulties. We have seen how young adults, who satisfy their cravings by eating packaged food at regular intervals, have difficulty getting proper sleep.
Among teenagers, the addiction to ultra processed food is equivalent to that of gaming. Often both go hand in hand. Such teenagers in our clinic have reported irritability and low moods. The fact that these foods also cause obesity push them to other mental health issues related to body or self-image. The addiction is so severe among this group that the weaning off period leads to anxiety of denial. If anybody shows signs of this addiction, they ought to consult a psychologist right away so that a proper de-addiction protocol can be worked out.