Michael Hunter, MD on Medika Life

Feeling Anxious or Blue? Might Be Your Diet

COULD ULTRA-PROCESSED FOODS INFLUENCE YOUR MOOD? The answer may be yes, according to a new study exploring whether individuals who consume higher amounts of ultra-processed food have more adverse mental health symptoms.

Do you enjoy sugary-sweet drinks? Packaged snacks or reconstituted meat products? They are convenient and easy to prepare.

I would be lying if I told you that I did not enjoy eating processed foods, at least in the past. I remain imperfect, but if I indulge, you can catch me eating a freshly made chocolate croissant or a delicious recently prepared piece of chocolate (of course) cake.

What are ultra-processed foods?

Let’s begin with some basics about processed foods before we pivot to the new study linking ultra-processed foods and mood.

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?

CAN ULTRA-PROCESSED FOODS HURT YOUR HEALTH? Some studies indicate the answer is yes.


In the Harvard Health Blog, Katherine McManus, MS, RD, LDN, offers her take:

“Unprocessed or minimally processed foods are whole foods in which the vitamins and nutrients are still intact. The food is in its natural (or nearly natural) state. These foods may be minimally altered by removal of inedible parts, drying, crushing, roasting, boiling, freezing, or pasteurization, to make them suitable to store and safe to consume.”

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines processed food as “food that has been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed in nutritional composition with fortifying, preserving or preparing in different ways.”

Please note that not all processed foods are unhealthy; rather, it depends on the amount of processing.

Ultra-processed foods, depression, and anxiety

Some studies point to a connection between ultra-processed food consumption and feeling blue. The evidence regarding other mental health symptoms, such as anxiety, remains lacking.

Enter a new study exploring whether people who consume higher amounts of ultra-processed food have more adverse mental health symptoms.

Photo by Fernando Andrade on Unsplash

Researchers measured ultra-processed food consumption as a percentage of total energy intake in kilo-calories. They took a representative sample from the United States National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 2007 and 2012, including 10,359 people ages 18 and older.

They categorized the foods and drinks consumed as unprocessed or minimally processed, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, or ultra-processed foods. They reported each food type as a percentage of daily calories.

The investigators examined measures of depression and mentally unhealthy or anxious days to see if those who ate more ultra-processed foods appeared more likely to report symptoms each month.

Here are the results, as published in Public Health Nutrition:

Individuals consuming the most ultra-processed foods (compared with those consuming the least) had significant increases in mild depression, “mentally unstable days,” and “anxious days.”

The high consumers of ultra-processed foods also reported significantly lower rates or reporting zero “mentally unhealthy days” and zero “anxious days.”

Ultra-processed foods and mental health — My take

Individuals with higher intakes of ultra-processed food consumption appeared significantly more likely to report mild depression, more mentally unhealthy and anxious days, and less likely to report zero mentally unhealthy or anxious days.

This study, while admittedly observational, adds to a growing scientific literature suggesting a connection between what we consume and mental health and well-being.

We need more analytic epidemiologic research to prove the hypotheses generated by studies such as the current one.

The study findings align with basic research showing that food additives in ultra-processed foods (such as artificial sweeteners and emulsifiers) can cause biological changes associated with mental health symptoms.

With a poor diet, the study authors remind us that we can have impaired glucose (blood sugar) tolerance, increases in inflammation, neuroinflammation, nerve cell mitochondrial (the cell’s powerhouse or energy station) function, and more.

Photo by Amos Bar-Zeev on Unsplash

Ultra-processed foods — Action plan

Unfortunately, many Americans consume copious amounts of ultra-processed foods. Here are some things we can do better (I am trying with you):

  • Get more whole foods in your diet. You’ll reap the benefits in terms of nutrition that ultra-processed foods lack. I find whole foods more filling, perhaps because they tend to have more water and fiber. As a result, I snack less.
  • Start with a piece of fruit as a snack. You can always find grapes sitting in my office.
  • Add fresh (or even frozen) vegetables to your meals. I had to start small, as I am not naturally inclined to eat a lot of plants.
  • Limit your ultra-processed food consumption. You knew I had to incorporate that tip! I mean the soft drinks (the easiest ultra-processed food for me to ditch), hot dogs, packaged cookies (that one was more challenging for me), and sweetened breakfast cereals.

Thank you for joining me today in this brief look at ultra-processed foods and anxiety and depression. As I write to you, I am pleased to report that I am eating some of my precious grapes. What is your go-to healthy snack?


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Michael Hunter, MD
Michael Hunter, MD
I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

Michael Hunter, MD

I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

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