What Are Ultra-Processed Foods: Can They Affect Your Mental Health?

What are ultra processed foods? While fast food might seem enticing, you might think twice after learning the link between food and mental health.

By Carla Delgado
Nov 8, 2023 2:00 PMNov 8, 2023 3:00 PM
Fast food, link between food and mental health
(Credit: Alena Haurylik/Shutterstock)

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More often than not, a trip to the grocery store ends up with the purchase of packaged snacks, sugar-sweetened beverages, or reconstituted meat products, also known as ultra-processed foods. These foods make up more than 70 percent of the packaged foods in the U.S. and represent about 60 percent of the calories consumed by the average American.

Extensive research has already indicated how detrimental ultra-processed foods are to your physical health — but what about your mental health?

What Are Ultra Processed Foods?

Ultra-processed foods are popular because they’re convenient, ready to eat, and usually less expensive than other foods. However, they tend to be high in added sugar, salt and saturated fat, not to mention the processing depletes the food’s nutritional value.

Ultra Processed Foods vs. Processed Foods

Processed foods are foods that have been changed from their natural state. This can happen through cleaning, cooking, canning, or freezing. These foods might have extra things added like preservatives (to keep them fresh), spices (for flavor), and other good stuff like vitamins.

Ultra-processed foods go even further. They have even more ingredients added to make them taste better, last longer, look good, or have a certain texture. These can include sugar, salt, artificial colors, and other things to change how they feel and taste. They're mainly made from parts taken from other foods, like oils, sugars, fats, and proteins that have been changed.


Read More: Are Ultra-Processed Foods a Silent Killer?


How Does Diet Impact Mental Health?

According to a study called the 'SMILES' trial from 2017, dietary improvement provides an effective and accessible treatment strategy for moderate to severe depression. The study itself was the first randomized, controlled trial that sought to find out if the improvement of an individual's diet would also improve their mental health through two support groups – one group had nutritional counseling and the other had social support. The dietary support group saw greater improvement compared to those in the social support control group.

Ultra-Processed Foods Meta Analysis

More recently, the authors of a 2022 Public Health Nutrition study analyzed the data from a nationally representative sample of the U.S. population. They found that people with a higher intake of ultra-processed foods were more likely to report having mentally unhealthy or anxious days and symptoms of mild depression. Studies like these demonstrate how much food can impact an individual’s mental health.

This is an important area of research given that we’re in somewhat of a mental health crisis, says Eric Hecht, affiliate associate professor in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University who was involved in the 2022 study.

“From a public health perspective, ultra-processed foods should be explored as one of the more common exposures that could be contributing to this crisis,” Hecht adds.


Read More: Therapy on a Plate: How Your Diet Can Benefit Your Mental Health


What Is the Connection Between Gut Health and the Brain?

Ultra-processed foods can induce inflammation in the gut and body, and this inflammation is correlated with depressive or anxious symptoms, says Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist at the Massachusetts General Hospital and author of This is Your Brain on Food, who was not involved in the study.

The Science Behind Diet, Gut Health, and Emotions

Although correlation isn’t causation, it’s possible for someone who consumes less ultra-processed foods to have lower odds of depression or anxiety. That’s because the gut microbiome and the brain remain closely connected through the vagus nerve (also known as the gut-brain connection). It acts as a fast two-way highway sending signals and chemicals back and forth, explains Naidoo.

“We produce over 90 percent of our body’s serotonin — as well as other neurotransmitters which govern mood — outside the brain, in the gut where our food is digested and broken down into vitamins, minerals and other nutrients,” Naidoo adds. “This enables a natural symbiosis between food and the body’s brain chemistry.”


Read More: 6 Brain Boosting Foods You Should Have on Your Plate


How To Improve Mental Health Through Diet

Making dietary changes to improve one’s mental health depends on each individual’s unique needs and body — what works for one may not work for another, says Naidoo. In general, it’s advisable to eat more whole foods, fruits and leafy greens. Consistency and balance are key because small changes over time make the most impact, she adds.

Moving Away from Processed Foods for Mental Wellness

For instance, it might be beneficial to skip those 10-piece chicken nuggets from the recently-released adult Happy Meals from McDonald's. Ultra-processed foods, or “foods where the original food is not really there anymore,” often contain substances like sugar and various chemicals that have untoward effects on mental health by themselves, says Hecht.

According to a 2017 Scientific Reports study, sugar intake from sweet food and beverages has an adverse effect on long-term psychological health.

The Mediterranean Diet and Mental Health 

Meanwhile, following the Mediterranean diet that has a high consumption of vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats, and the low intake of red meat, has been shown to reduce the risk of depression. Diets that eliminate junk food altogether are also recommended.

Following diets that rely on whole foods, as compared to packaged processed foods that should hardly be considered foods, may reduce adverse mental health symptoms, says Hecht. 


Read More: How to Improve Your Mental Health


This article was originally published on Oct. 24, 2022 and has since been updated by the Discover staff.

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