MIchael Hunter, MD on Medika Life

Ultra-processed Foods and Mental Health

ULTRA-PROCESSED FOODS — FACTORY-MADE AND HIGHLY REFINED — influence our mental health? A new systematic review and meta-analysis of 43 observational studies revealed many harmful effects of ultra-processed foods, including a slight increase in the odds of suffering from depression.

Ultra-processed foods can be pretty tasty but not filling. The latter observation is made in the context of high levels of sugar, salt, and saturated fat. There can be artificial colors or flavors, too. Unfortunately, these highly processed goods tend to be low in high in fiber, protein, or essential vitamins and minerals.

I recently wrote an overview of processed foods:

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?CAN ULTRA-PROCESSED FOODS HURT YOUR HEALTH? Some studies indicate the answer is yes.medium.com.

Today, we’ll explore the findings from the new systematic review looking at the perils of ultra-processed food consumption.

Ultra-processed food examples

Here is what I previously offered on Medium.com: Examples of ultra-processed foods include frozen meals, hot dogs, cold cuts, many fast foods, packaged cookies, salty snacks, and cakes. Such foods are unfortunately common in the place where I live, the United States.

Photo by Ball Park Brand on Unsplash

Read this disturbing statistic: About half of our daily calories come from ultra-processed foods in Western countries. Alas, ultra-processed food consumption has substantially increased in recent years.

Ultra-processed food and chronic disease

Melissa Lane and her colleagues in Australia conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of the association between ultra-processed food consumption and non-communicable disease risk, morbidity, and mortality.

The consumption of ultra-processed food appeared to be associated with a higher risk of several chronic conditions:

  • Obesity 1.5-times higher risk
  • Early mortality, all-cause 1.3-times
  • Metabolic syndrome 1.8-times
  • Wheezing 1.4-times

Cardiometabolic disease risk appeared higher, as did frailty, irritable bowel syndrome, and cancer (breast and overall). Adolescents had a higher risk of suffering from metabolic syndrome and cholesterol problems (dyslipidemia).

Ultra-processed food consumption appeared associated with a higher risk of depression, with a 1.22-fold increase in incidence.

Ultra-processed foods: My take

People in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia get about half of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods.

I do not know if depression causes us to consume more ultra-processed foods or if these foods cause depression. The study authors do note that at the time of study entry, the subjects did not have depression.

How might ultra-processed food influence mental health? One theory points to the negative influence ultra-processed foods have on our gut microbiome. Our intestines (and elsewhere, including the skin) have trillions of microbes. The microbiome influences our body’s inflammation levels.

Did you know that about one in four individuals with symptoms of depression has higher levels of circulating inflammatory substances? Poor diet quality and less diverse or “good” gut bacteria may be blamed.

While causality is not established, increasing clinical literature shows an association between ultra-processed foods and poorer health. I have ditched my morning fruit juice (in favor of fruit).

I am pretty imperfect, but I am trying (it is a journey) to increase my fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. I am pretty good at consuming nuts, seeds, and olive oil.

Thank you for joining me today.

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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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