Depression, anxiety and mentally unhealthy days more frequent in people who often consume ultra-processed foods, study shows

Although ultra-processed meals are inexpensive, easy to make, and ready to consume in a short amount of time, industrial formulations of processed food ingredients (oils, fats, sugars, carbohydrates, and protein isolates) included in these foods contain very little or no whole food at all.

They are the end result of lengthy “physical, biological, and chemical procedures” that produce food items that are deficient in original and natural food. These processes culminate in the creation of food products. Ingredients such as flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers, and other cosmetic additions are frequently included in ultra-processed meals.

Although there is some evidence between the use of ultra-processed foods with depression, there is a paucity of research surrounding other detrimental mental health symptoms such as anxiety and mentally ill days.

Researchers from the Schmidt College of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University and their colleagues conducted a survey of a nationally representative sample of the population of the United States to determine whether or not individuals who consume high amounts of ultra-processed foods report significantly more adverse mental health symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and mentally unhealthy days.

From the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in the United States, they examined 10,359 persons aged 18 and older to determine their levels of moderate depression, the number of mental ill days, and the number of anxious days.

Individuals who consumed the most ultra-processed foods had statistically significant increases in the adverse mental health symptoms of mild depression, “mentally unhealthy days,” and “anxious days,” according to the findings of the study, which were published in the journal Public Health Nutrition. The findings were compared with those of individuals who consumed the least amount of ultra-processed foods.

They also reported much fewer instances of having no “mentally unwell days” or “anxious days,” both of which were significantly lower than the national average.

The results of this study are applicable not just to the entire United States of America but also to other Western countries with diets that are similarly high in ultra-processed foods.

“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,” said Eric Hecht, M.D., Ph.D., corresponding author and an affiliate associate professor in FAU’s Schmidt College of Medicine.

“More than 70 percent of packaged foods in the U.S. are classified as ultra-processed food and represent about 60 percent of all calories consumed by Americans. Given the magnitude of exposure to and effects of ultra-processed food consumption, our study has significant clinical and public health implications.”

The NOVA food categorization, which is a widely utilized system that was only recently accepted by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, was utilized by the researchers in order to carry out the study. In order to classify foods and beverages into the following four categories, NOVA takes into account the characteristics of processed foods, the degree to which they are processed, the end goal of the processing, and the scope of the processing. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, and ultra-processed foods are the categories that result.

“Data from this study add important and relevant information to a growing body of evidence concerning the adverse effects of ultra-processed consumption on mental health symptoms,” said Charles H. Hennekens, M.D., Dr.PH, co-author, the first Sir Richard Doll Professor of Medicine, and senior academic advisor, FAU Schmidt College of Medicine.

“Analytic epidemiologic research is needed to test the many hypotheses formulated from these descriptive data.”

A mental disease affects almost one in every five individuals in the United States, as stated by the National Institute of Mental Health. Depression and anxiety are two of the most common forms of mental disease, and they are among the main causes of morbidity and mortality.


Using the NOVA food classification system, we conducted our research using a cross-sectional methodology. Our objective was to determine the amount of UPF consumed as a % of total energy intake in kilocalories. Using multivariable analyses that accounted for potential confounding factors, we investigated whether those who drink larger quantities of UPF are more likely to experience moderate depression, more mentally unwell days, and more anxious days per month.


Representative sample from the United States National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 2007 and 2012.


10 359 adults aged 18+ without a history of cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin use.


After adjusting for covariates, individuals with the highest level of UPF consumption were significantly more likely to report at least mild depression (OR: 1·81; 95 % CI1·09, 3·02), more mentally unhealthy (risk ratio (RR): 1·22; 95 % CI 1·18, 1·25) and more anxious days per month (RR: 1·19; 95 % CI 1·16, 1·23). They were also significantly less likely to report zero mentally unhealthy (OR: 0·60; 95 % CI 0·41, 0·88) or anxious days (OR: 0·65; 95 % CI 0·47, 0·90).


Individuals who reported larger intakes of UPF were much more likely to report moderate depression, more mentally unwell and more anxious days, and were significantly less likely to claim having never had any mentally ill or anxious days. The addition of these statistics brings new and critical information to an ever-expanding body of evidence showing the potentially negative consequences that consumption of UPF may have on mental health.

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