Nearly one in five adults lives with a mental illness such as depression or anxiety, which are among the leading causes of morbidity, disability and mortality, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. At the same time, consumption of ultra-processed foods in the US has reached record levels.
Researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s Schmidt College of Medicine wanted to determine whether there is a direct link between UPF consumption and adverse psychological symptoms.
“Dietary patterns can affect mental health. For example, poor diets that lack essential nutrients, have a high glycemic index and are high in added sugars can lead to adverse mental health symptoms.”researchers argued in the study, published in the magazine Public health Nutrition.Read:Large-scale clinical study shows CU Medicine (SIM01) microbiome formula reduces risk of infections including COVID-19
“Although there is some evidence regarding UPF consumption and depressiondata is scarce on other adverse psychological symptoms, including anxiety and mentally unhealthy days.
“More than 70% of packaged foods in the U.S. are classified as ultra-processed foods and represent approximately 60% of all calories consumed by Americans. Given the magnitude of exposure to and the effects of consuming ultra-processed foods, our research has yielded significant clinical results and public health implications”, said study author Eric Hecht, MD, Ph.D., and an affiliated associate professor at the FAU’s Schmidt College of Medicine.
According to recent researchUPF accounted for more than half (57%) of the calories consumed by American adults in 2017-2018, compared to 53.5% in the 2001-2002 period. In contrast, the consumption of whole foods decreased from 32.7% (in 2001-2002) to 27.4% in 2017-2018.Read:El Camino Health Buys Sobrato-Owned San Jose Medical Office for $19.5M
What are ultra-processed foods?
Researchers defined ultra-processed foods as: “Industrial formulations of processed food substances (oils, fats, sugars, starches, protein isolates) containing little or no whole foods and typically containing flavors, colorings, emulsifiers and other cosmetic additives.”
For the purpose of the study, researchers used the NOVA food classification, a system recently adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. NOVA considers the nature, scope and purpose of food processing to classify foods and beverages into four groups: unprocessed or minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, and ultra-processed foods.
“The ultra-processing of foods depletes nutritional value and also increases calorie count, as ultra-processed foods are often high in added sugars, saturated fats and salt, while being low in protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals,” added Hecht.
UPF consumption and self-reported ‘mentally unhealthy’ and ‘anxious’ days
Researchers studied a nationally representative sample of the US population (10,359 adults aged 18 years and older from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) and measured three psychological symptoms: mild depression (determined by a 9-question personal health questionnaire), the number of mentally unhealthy days and number of anxious days.Read:Oldham family man died after drug and mental health struggles
The number of psychologically unhealthy days was obtained from the answer to the question: ‘How many days has your mental health been bad in the past 30 days?The number of anxious days was obtained from the answer to the question:In the past 30 days, how many days have you felt worried, tense, or anxious?’
Results of the study showed that individuals who consumed the most ultra-processed foods compared to those who consumed the least amount were more likely to report negative psychological symptoms of mild depression, “mentally unhealthy days”,and “anxious days.”They also had significantly lower rates of zero reports “mentally unhealthy days” and zero “anxious days.”
Growing number of studies on the link between nutrition and mental health
These results are in line with other research examining the link between diet and mental health, researchers said. For example in one 2014 meta-analysisOf twenty observational studies, individuals who ate diets with higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains had a lower risk of depression.
In another randomized trial, which researchers said provides the most reliable evidence for small-to-moderate effects, those assigned to a three-month healthy dietary intervention (consisting of higher intakes of fruits and vegetables, fish and whole grains) reported significant reductions in moderate to severe depression.
“Data from this study add important and relevant information to a growing body of evidence regarding the adverse effects of ultra-processed consumption on psychological symptoms,”said Charles H. Hennekens, MD, Dr.PH, co-author, first Sir Richard Doll Professor of Medicine, and senior academic advisor, FAU Schmidt College of Medicine.
Source: Public health and nutrition
A cross-sectional study of ultra-processed food consumption and adverse psychological symptoms
Authors: Eric M Hecht, et al.