- A new study links fried foods with a higher risk of anxiety and depression.
- Fried potatoes in particular were an issue.
- Experts say more research is needed to determine whether fried foods are fueling mood disorders.
No one ever claimed that fried foods were healthy, but a new study suggests they can have an impact on more than your physical wellbeing—they may impact your mental health, too.
The study, which was published in PNAS, analyzed data on mental health and eating patterns from 140,728 people collected over more than 11 years. People who were diagnosed with depression within the first two years were excluded. After that, the researchers discovered 8,294 cases of anxiety and 12,735 cases of depression in people who ate fried foods.
Overall, the researchers discovered that people who regularly ate fried foods—particularly fried potatoes like French fries—had a 12% higher risk of anxiety and a 7% higher risk of depression when compared to people who didn’t eat fried foods. People who ate fried potatoes also had a 2% higher risk of depression than those who ate fried white meat, like fried chicken.
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The researchers theorized that acrylamide, which is a chemical that’s formed during frying, is responsible for the higher risk of anxiety and depression. “These results both epidemiologically and mechanistically provide strong evidence to unravel the mechanism of acrylamide-triggered anxiety and depression, and highlight the significance of reducing fried food consumption for mental health,” the researchers wrote.
Nearly 7 million adults in the U.S.—3.1% of the population—has generalized anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Recent data show that nearly one in 10 Americans struggles with depression.
But why might this link exist? Here’s what experts have to say.
Why might fried foods be linked with anxiety and depression?
It’s important to point out that the study’s researchers didn’t prove that eating fried foods actually caused anxiety and depression. Instead, they merely found a link between eating fried foods and an increased risk of anxiety and depression.
They also didn’t determine whether people were more likely to develop anxiety and depression from eating fried foods, or if they ate fried foods—which are notorious comfort foods—because they felt anxious and depressed. Though, again, people who were diagnosed with depression within the first two years were excluded from the study.
However, there is some other data that links acrylamide (again, a chemical that’s formed during the frying process) with anxiety. The researchers also referenced a study on zebrafish where they exposed the fish to acrylamide over a long period of time. They found that exposure prompted the fish to live in the tank’s dark zones, which is often a sign of anxiety in the fish, they said. The zebrafish that were exposed to acrylamide didn’t explore their tanks or socialize with other zebrafish the way they typically would, signaling that they could be feeling depressed, the researchers wrote.
A 2016 study also linked fried foods to depression. That study analyzed eating patterns and the mental health of 715 Japanese workers. The researchers found that there was a “significant positive indirect association” between eating fried foods and experiencing depression. “Frequency of fried food consumption was associated with lower resilience to depression,” the study’s authors wrote in the conclusion.
Experts say it’s really difficult to know if the fried food or anxiety and depression came first. “It may be difficult to fully control for this variable when studying the relationship between food and mood,” says Hillary Ammon, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety & Women’s Emotional Wellness. “In some instances, the fried foods could have led to an increase in anxiety and depression. Yet, there may be people who were struggling with anxiety or depression prior to eating fast foods routinely.”
People with depression in particular may have a more sedentary lifestyle and less energy to cook meals, Ammon points out. “They may be more likely to go the ‘quick’ route for food consumption—like fast food meals,” she says.
It’s possible that eating fried foods can contribute to or exacerbate mental health issues, says Scott Keatley, R.D., co-owner of Keatley Medical Nutrition Therapy. “One possible explanation for this link could be the high trans fat content in some fried foods,” he says. “Trans fats have been associated with inflammation, which has been implicated in the development of mood disorders. Additionally, fried foods are often high in calories and low in nutrients, which may contribute to poor overall diet quality and subsequently impact mental health.”
Acrylamide in particular is a “contaminant in a lot of fried foods that can make people more susceptible to anxiety- and depressive-like behaviors,” says Jessica Cording, R.D., a nutritionist and the author of The Little Book of Game-Changers. “If somebody has too much of it, there’s a degree of neuroinflammation that has been associated with some of these symptoms,” she says.
And, at a basic level, eating a lot of fried foods can just make you feel off, Cording says. “Fried foods promote oxidative stress, and that can impact your gut microbiome,” she says. “When your gut doesn’t feel so great, that will impact how you feel emotionally.”
Overall, this study raises more questions than it answers, says Thea Gallagher, Psy.D., a clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone Health and co-host of the Mind in View podcast. “The big thing coming out of this is that we need more data,” she says. “We need to continue to look at the whole person and really understand how food, diet, weight, mood, and other factors all interact and intersect with each other. At this point, it’s just not clear whether the fried foods were driving the mental health issues or if people with anxiety and depression were turning to fried foods.”
How to cut back on fried foods
Regardless of whether they impact your mental health, fried foods aren’t good for your body, Cording points out. If you’re interested in cutting back on the fried foods you eat, experts recommend trying the following:
- Add more healthy foods to your diet. Looking at fried foods as something you “shouldn’t” have can make it mentally harder to avoid them, Cording says. So, she recommends focusing on eating healthy, like adding more greens to each meal, snacking on citrus, and adding nuts and seeds to your diet. “Look at what you can add to crowd out some of those less-helpful foods,” she says.
- Make it count when you eat fried foods. “Try to limit their intake to occasional treats rather than daily staples,” Keatley says. Cording suggests focusing on fried foods you really love and having those as a treat vs. randomly having something fried at any given moment. “When you have it, making sure it’s really going to be worth it for you—that’s something I’ve seen go over really well,” she says.
- Choose different sides. Side dishes like fries are common at restaurants, but you don’t have to have them. Keatley suggests choosing sides like a salad or steamed vegetables instead of something fried, if possible.
- Think of what role fried foods are playing in your life. Cording recommends trying to look at the context of when you have fried foods. “Are you making any decision with food out of emotions? Are you having fried foods at certain times of day?” she says. “If you tend to reach for fried foods when you feel stressed at work, that’s something to get ahead of. When you recognize the behavior, it gives you the power to change.”
Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual health and relationships, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamour, and more. She has a master’s degree from American University, lives by the beach, and hopes to own a teacup pig and taco truck one day.