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It’s no secret that packaged, highly processed foods and beverages often aren’t the healthiest picks at your local grocery store. After all, these snack foods, convenient frozen dinners, and grab-and-go treats may be delicious, but they’re often full of extras like added sugars and plenty of calories. And some aren’t merely processed, falling into a category called ultra-processed foods.
Should you aim to avoid ultra-processed foods as part of your daily diet? Well, according to recent research, this category of processed products may pose some concerns – particularly when it comes to mental health.
What are ultra-processed foods?
Ultra-processed foods are somewhat similar to processed foods. They’re designed to be convenient, affordable products that are packaged and easy to eat, like microwave freezer meals or ready-to-eat snacks. Ultra-processed foods are made with processed food substances, and they contain little or no whole foods. Additionally, ultra-processed foods commonly contain additives like artificial flavors, colorings, emulsifiers, and preservatives.
And they’re more common than you might think. Over 70 percent of all packaged foods in the U.S. can be classified as ultra-processed. In fact, ultra-processed foods make up about 60 percent of all of the calories consumed by Americans.
But just because these packaged products are convenient and easy to rely on doesn’t necessarily mean they’re always a healthful choice.
Eating a lot of ultra-processed food may alter mental health
A 2022 study published in Public Health Nutrition took a look at how ultra-processed food may alter health and wellness, specifically concerning mental health. The findings suggest that eating a lot of ultra-processed products may be connected to an increased risk of negative mental health symptoms.
This study examined over 10,300 adults ages 18 and older, with participants selected to create a nationally-representative sample of the U.S. population. The researchers categorized the participants’ diets using the NOVA food classification system, which takes into account how, to what extent, and why food is processed to divvy them up into four categories: unprocessed or minimally processed, processed culinary ingredients, processed, and ultra-processed.
In addition to assessing participants’ diets, researchers also measured mental health, checking for symptoms of mild depression, the number of mental “unhealthy” days, and the number of anxious days experienced.
At the study’s end, the results showed that participants who consumed the highest amounts of ultra-processed foods saw significant increases in adverse mental health symptoms, compared to those who ate the least amount of ultra-processed foods. Those who ate a lot of ultra-processed products saw symptoms of mild depressions, an increased number of mentally unhealthy days, and more anxious days.
These same participants also had significantly lower rates of report zero mentally unhealthy days and zero anxious days, suggesting they saw regular or frequent symptoms of mild depression and anxiety.
Why might ultra-processed foods be linked to worse mental health?
Ultra-processed foods are, inherently, different from whole foods. And while some of these packaged foods can have their benefits, they are often low in nutritional value and high in unnecessary extras.
As the study’s corresponding author Eric Hecht, M.D., Ph.D., affiliate associate professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Schmidt College of Medicine, told Science Daily, “The ultra-processing of food depletes its nutritional value and also increases the number of calories, as ultra-processed foods tend to be high in added sugar, saturated fat and salt, while low in protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.”
It very well may be that this increased sugar, saturated fat, and salt content – and a lack of key nutrients the body needs – contributes to less-than-ideal mental wellness.
Jesse Lane Lee, Certified Nutrition Professional (CNP) and holistic nutritionist, points to those very same ingredients: “Ultra-processed foods often lack the nutrients we need to support our mental well-being, and they are often high in sugar. There are studies that link high consumption of sugar to depression and anxiety.”
Instead of relying on highly processed foods, Lane Lee suggests trying naturally-sweet whole foods as alternatives to keep your mental health in mind: “If you are looking for a sweet treat that is really quick to prepare, stuff a Medjool date with your favorite nut butter and a sprinkle of raw cacao nibs.”
How much is too much?
Worried that consuming ultra-processed foods may have the above effects on your mental health? Well, while this research does bring up some points of concern, ultra-processed foods aren’t always something to avoid. In fact, some of the foods that fall into this category may surprise you.
While processed and ultra-processed foods aren’t always the healthiest option, these terms aren’t so clearly defined. Some of these prepared foods are low in nutritional value, some ultra-processed foods are actually nutrient-rich – like fortified breakfast cereals and plant-based burgers.
So, exactly how much processed food – or ultra-processed food – may hamper your nutrition? According to Lane Lee, “In an ideal world, we would avoid ultra-processed foods completely. It is hard to say exactly how much is too much because that greatly depends on the individual’s overall health and environment.”
Ultimately, it’s all about balance, as Lane Lee explains: “If you generally eat a clean nutrient-dense diet and limit your exposure to environmental toxins, your body’s capacity to handle ultra-processed foods is higher, so you can tolerate them on occasion better than someone who generally relies on ultra-processed foods. Meal planning and batch cooking are great ways to ensure you have healthy foods on hand so you don’t have to turn to frozen meals on a weekly basis.”
To learn more about how nutrition may shape mental health, keep reading: