Ultra Processed Foods & Mental Health

Written by Julia Mor: “Julia Mor is a nutritionist working in healthcare and currently diving deep into the world of nutrition and behaviour with an MSC at Bournemouth University. She has a soft spot for exploring how gut health ties into our mental well-being and a particular interest in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).”

In recent years, the global landscape of food consumption has undergone a significant transformation with the rise of ultra-processed foods. Characterised by their industrial formulations, these products often contain ingredients that are far removed from their original state, loaded with additives, preservatives, and refined sugars (NHS 2023). Whilst the impact of such diets on physical health has been extensively studied, emerging research suggests a profound connection between ultra-processed foods and mental health. This article explores the intricate relationships between these highly processed food items and the well-being of our minds.

The Ultra-Processed Food Epidemic

Ultra-processed foods have become ever- present in our modern diets, tempting us with convenience and palatability. These foods often include sugary snacks, pre-packaged meals, and beverages laden with artificial flavours and colours (Mc Manus 2020). The increasing reliance on these products has sparked concerns among health professionals, as studies reveal a potential link between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and mental health disorders.

The Gut-Brain Connection

One key avenue through which ultra-processed foods may influence mental health is the gut-brain axis. The gut is home to a complex ecosystem of microorganisms known as the gut microbiota, which plays a crucial role in maintaining both physical and mental health. Ultra-processed foods, high in sugars and unhealthy fats, can disrupt the balance of the gut microbiota, leading to a condition known as dysbiosis.

Dysbiosis is associated with inflammation, and emerging evidence suggests that inflammation in the gut may contribute to inflammation in the brain (Jewell 2017). This neuroinflammation has been linked to various mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety. Therefore, the consumption of ultra-processed foods may indirectly impact mental health by influencing the delicate balance of the gut microbiota. (Liu et al 2023)

Nutrient Deficiency and Mental Well- being

Ultra- processed foods are often nutritionally imbalanced, providing excessive amounts of calories but lacking essential nutrients. (Woods 2019) This nutritional deficiency can adversely affect brain function and neurotransmitter production. For example, omega-3 fatty acids, crucial for brain health, are often scarce in highly processed diets. The insufficient intake of these nutrients has been linked to an increased risk of mood disorders and cognitive decline.

Blood Sugar Fluctuations:

Another factor linking ultra-processed foods to mental health is their impact on blood sugar levels. Foods with a high glycaemic index, commonly found in ultra-processed products, can lead to rapid spikes and crashes in blood sugar. (Delpino 2021)These fluctuations are not only detrimental to physical health but can also influence mood and cognitive function. The “sugar rush” followed by a subsequent energy crash may contribute to irritability, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating.

Behavioural Impact of Highly Processed Diets:

Beyond the physiological aspects, the consumption of ultra-processed foods may also influence behaviour. Diets high in sugars and unhealthy fats have been associated with an increased risk of

developing mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety. Additionally, the addictive nature of certain ingredients in ultra-processed foods, such as refined sugars and artificial flavourings, may contribute to compulsive eating patterns, further exacerbating mental health issues.

While the link between ultra-processed foods and mental health is a burgeoning field of study, the existing evidence suggests a significant association. As we navigate the modern food landscape, it becomes crucial to prioritize whole, nutrient-dense foods that support both our physical and mental well-being. By understanding and addressing the impact of ultra-processed foods on mental health, we can take proactive steps towards fostering a healthier, more balanced relationship with what we consume, ultimately nurturing a resilient and thriving mind.

Reference list

Delpino, F. M., Figueiredo, L. M., Bielemann, R. M., da Silva, B. G. C., dos Santos, F. S., Mintem, G. C., Flores, T. R., Arcêncio, R. A. and Nunes, B. P., 2021. Ultra-processed food and risk of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. International Journal of Epidemiology [online], 51 (4), 1120–1141. Available from: https://academic.oup.com/ije/article-abstract/51/4/1120/6460628?redirectedFrom=fulltext&login=false.

Dixon, R., 2023. Ultra-processed foods: the 19 things everyone needs to know. The Guardian [online], 6 September 2023. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/food/2023/sep/06/ultra-processed-foods-the-19-things-everyone-needs-to-know.

Jewell, T., 2017. What Causes Dysbiosis and How Is It Treated? [online]. Healthline. Available from: https://www.healthline.com/health/digestive-health/dysbiosis#causes-and-risk-factors.

Liu, L., Wang, H., Chen, X., Zhang, Y., Zhang, H. and Xie, P., 2023. Gut microbiota and its metabolites in depression: from pathogenesis to treatment. eBioMedicine, 90, 104527.

McManus, K. D., 2020. What are ultra-processed foods and are they bad for our health? [online]. Harvard Health Blog. Available from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-are-ultra-processed-foods-and-are-they-bad-for-our-health-2020010918605. NHS, 2022. Eating Processed Foods [online]. nhs.uk. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/how-to-eat-a-balanced-diet/what-are-processed-foods/.

Woods, K., 2019. Ultra-processed foods [online]. Bhf.org.uk. Available from: https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/heart-matters-magazine/news/behind-the-headlines/ultra-processed-foods.

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