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There are any number of reasons we may struggle from time to time with depression, anxiety, and other mental-health conditions, but researchers at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) believe we may be overlooking a not-so-­obvious culprit: the typical American diet.

By some estimates, ultraprocessed foods — industrial formulations of oils, fats, sugars, starches, protein isolates, and other substances — account for nearly 60 percent of the average American’s daily caloric intake. The results of a recent FAU study suggest that these products may trigger neurological changes that can lead to harmful mood shifts.

Earlier research had established a link between junk-food consumption and depression, but lead study author Eric Hecht, MD, PhD, wanted to determine whether a steady diet of ultraprocessed fare could result in a wider range of psychological troubles.

71 % of packaged foods in the United States is classified as ultraprocessed.

Hecht’s team analyzed data col­lected from 10,359 participants by the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and adjusted for numerous sociodemographic variables. They then measured incidences of mild depression and anxiety as well as “mentally unhealthy days” reported by respondents between 2007 and 2012.

Their results, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, suggest a strong link between a junk-food diet and mental-health struggles.

“Individuals reporting higher intakes of ultraprocessed foods were significantly more likely to report mild depression, more mentally unhealthy and more anxious days, and less likely to report zero mentally unhealthy or anxious days,” Hecht concludes. “These data add important information to a growing body of evidence concerning the potential adverse effects of ultraprocessed-food consumption on mental health.”

Lacking essential nutrients and often packed with sugar, these products typically rank high on the glycemic index. Hecht points to animal studies suggesting that such fare can damage the brain’s ability to regulate insulin, potentially dampening mood.

57 % of calories consumed daily by the average American come from ultraprocessed foods.

These foods can reduce levels of serotonin (associated with feelings of happiness) and dopamine (rewards) in the brain while sparking neuro­inflammation. The gut microbiome may also be damaged, triggering a systemic inflammatory flare-up that may affect brain function.

More research is needed, Hecht says; the data he and his team analyzed was self-reported. But their conclusions bolster those of earlier studies about the damaging ­effects of ultra­processed food and send a strong message to the millions of Americans entrenched in a junk-food diet.

“Since ultraprocessed foods represent the majority of calories consumed by the U.S. population, these data may also have significant clinical and public-health implications,” he says.

Craig Cox
Craig Cox

Craig Cox is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of healthy aging.

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