Ultra-Processed Foods Contribute to Decline in Mental Well-Being, Study Finds

Ultra-processed foods, like cold cuts, cup noodles, and chips, contribute to worsened depression symptoms worldwide.

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A recent study by Sapien Labs has revealed a strong negative association between mental well-being and the consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPFs). These foods, which have gained widespread popularity in America, are believed to adversely affect individuals of all ages. The findings of this study underscore the need for nutrition education and increased public awareness about the potential health risks associated with UPFs.

The researchers utilized data from the Global Mind Project, which comprises surveys answered by hundreds of thousands of adults around the world and is continually expanding. Sapien Labs stated that the overconsumption of Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs) severely impacts mental health. The researchers write:

“Since the 1950s, the consumption of ultra-processed food has steadily increased. Today, it’s estimated that in countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States, approximately 60% of all food intake comes from ultra-processed food. As the prevalence of ultra-processed food in the diet has increased, so too has concern over the implications for our physical and mental health… Across all respondents, 53% of those who consumed ultra-processed food several times a day were distressed or struggling with their mental well-being (i.e., had [mental health quotient] scores in a negative range) compared to only 18% of those who rarely or never consumed ultra-processed food.”

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - CIRCA MAY, 2017: inside 7-11 convenience store sign. 7-Eleven is an international chain of convenience stores.The research recognizes the negative impact of UPFs on physical health, such as causing weight gain, diabetes, and heart problems. However, what makes this research unique is its focus on mental well-being. UPFs may be responsible for more than just physical health issues.

Sapien Labs used the Global Mind Project to assess survey answers from 292,783 participants. This includes responses from people in every age-gender group from over 70 countries and 12 languages.

The researchers used the following phrasing when asking the participants about UPFs:

How frequently do you consume ultra-processed food? e.g., McDonald’s, Dominos, microwave meals, ultra-processed canned food, deli meats/cold cuts, noodles in a cup, packaged crisps/chips, sweets/candies, sodas/fizzy drinks.”

Participants were first asked to take the mental health quotient (MHQ) assessment. This exam asks respondents to rate 47 behaviors and traits on a 1-9 scale, where 1 represents the item as “a real challenge and impacts my ability to function” and 9 represents “a real asset to my life and performance.” In other words, the MHQ assessment seeks not only to diagnose disorders or find instabilities in mental health. However, other items on the survey included symptoms of mental unwellness, such as suicidal ideation, in which case the 9-point scale changed to ask how frequently the symptom was disruptive or harmful.

This test served as a benchmark for their mental well-being and was used to draw conclusions about the impacts of UPFs. The researchers also asked about the frequency of physical activity and household income to standardize across potentially confounding variables.

Their results showed that mental well-being tends to decrease as consumption of UPFs increases and that people who consume UPFs several times a day are three times more likely to endure mental health struggles than people who never or rarely do.

They also found that younger people tend to eat more UPFs than older age groups, with people 18-24 consuming the most on average. But, ultra-processed foods affect all age groups in about the same way and significantly affect all tangible dimensions of mental health, including adaptability, resilience, self-image, mood, outlook, motivation, cognition, and mind-body connection.

The study was conducted in multiple languages and included participants from diverse backgrounds and age groups. The study did not have any limitations to generalizability. However, it relied on self-report surveys, which can sometimes be unreliable due to the desire to present oneself positively. But, since the study was conducted virtually and without a proctor to administer the assessment, the chances of such unreliability were reduced.

The impact of UPFs cannot be underestimated, especially as neoliberalism wreaks havoc on living wages and food prices. In this study from Sapien Labs, the Philippines, United States, and the United Kingdom reported the highest average consumption of ultra-processed foods. America is one such country affected by rising prices of produce and the simultaneous expansion of the fast food industry; it is harder than ever to not eat ultra-processed foods, especially on a strict budget.

This socioeconomic issue arises as access to unprocessed foods becomes pricier. Additionally, appetite regulation, feelings of hopelessness, and self-image are the most impacted aspects of mental health.

Participants who reported frequently consuming ultra-processed foods also reported at least 2 points lower mental well-being scores than those who never or rarely consume UPFs. This difference in mental well-being is significant, and the authors reference a study showing an improvement in depression symptoms after only three weeks of dietary changes that excluded ultra-processed food consumption.

Given the significant impact of Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs) on mental health, Sapien Labs is urging researchers, clinicians, and consumers worldwide to increase their awareness of this topic. As UPFs could play a crucial role in improving global mental health, it is essential to delve deeper into this nascent research area.

 

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Sapien Labs. (2023, October 2). Consumption of ultra-processed food and mental well-being outcomes. Sapien Labs. Retrieved October 8, 2023, from https://sapienlabs.org/consumption-of-ultra-processed-food-and-mental-wellbeing-outcomes/

17 COMMENTS

  1. MIA has repeatedly and justifiably criticized drug studies. It should be just as critical of studies like this.

    This study is so flawed it doesn’t belong here. The obvious criticism is that there’s no reason to believe that people who frequently eat ultra processed foods have the same characteristics as those who don’t.

    Liking a poorly done study’s conclusions is no reason to promote it by making it a lead article.

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    • Really ? It is common sense to the point one doesn’t even need an official study :

      “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” hearkens back to Hippocrates, the father of medicine. This quote, though thousands of years old, acknowledges the importance of healthy eating and how the nutrients in various foods have healing properties.

      I bet the mediterranean diet is better for mental health than the standard Western diet. It is not rocket science, it is common sense.

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  2. I generally agree with the article. Quality of food is so important for mental health. I think a lot of people are like me in that more info about the characteristics of Ultra Processed Food is helpful to inform shopping choices, the reading of labels, etc. Some excellent reads about our health and the food we eat is 1)” Metabolic” by retired, pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig, and 2) “Brain Energy” by research psychiatrist Dr. Christopher Palmer. I highly recommend the reading of these two books.

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    • I’m criticizing my own comment. I was hasty to call “Brain Energy” an excellent read when I had only begun to read it, which is a Terrible thing to do. While I DO think this book starts a needed conversation, I’m developing a concern for how Dr. Palmer is framing the conversation. I would still encourage others to read this book so we can discuss it.
      Now, I would focus positive attention upon Dr. Palmer’s claim that the unifying principle of mental illnesses is metabolic dysfunction involving the mitochondria. I welcome that particular perspective for reasons having to do with my own reading of the medical literature. Furthermore, doesn’t this seminal point remind you of the national news story of Justina Pelletier and the rally in NYC where we wore the green “Free Justina” tee shirts? It was said that Justina’s former doctor had been treating her for a mitochondrial disease before psychiatry “intercepted” her case and she was forcibly detained and subjected to psychiatric treatment. These observations compel me to finish reading Dr. Palmer’s book.

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      • I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Dr. Palmer does not mention iatrogenic harm in his discussion of overlap of psychiatric symptoms between different diagnoses. Nevertheless, I will see what I can learn from this book and to what extent his remarks seem consistent with my own observations of what my family has suffered and what I have learned.

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  3. Self-reporting seems great. But what about self-selection?.

    Well, as reviewed, I guess one can say that the 2 points “significant” improvement might come from a few, some, individuals who derived a benefit from decreasing UPF consumption.

    But I, might be confused with eating less or more of something, like UPF, with increasing or decreasing said consumption.

    So like an idiosyncratic relationship?. Or is it that ALL people improved by the more or less same amount?.

    I’m fixated with averages and individual improvement. What matters for each one of us, generally.

    So this study might be like the documentary “Super-size me” but with big data, “branding”, and without the dramatics.

    🙂

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    • And reminding myself that the mental health quotient very probably has not validity, that is the fact that it meassures something at all in the human mind or brain, in reality, has not been proven.

      As there is no scientific proof that any psychological or psychiatrical scale has done so either.

      This TWO paragraphs quoted from the DSM:

      “Since a complete description of the underlying pathological processes is not possible for most mental disorders, it is important to emphasize that the current diagnostic criteria are the best available description of how mental disorders are expressed and can be recognized by trained clinicians.” (Preface to DSM-5, included on p.xxiii of DSM-5-TR)

      “In the absences [sic] of clear biological markers or clinically useful measurements of severity for many mental disorders, it has not been possible to separate normal from pathological symptom expressions contained in diagnostic criteria.” (Use of the Manual, Clinical Significance Criteria, p.23, DSM-5-TR).

      From:

      https://madincanada.org/2023/10/maid-and-mental-illness-an-interview-with-dr-jeffrey-kirby/

      Linked to from:

      https://www.madinamerica.com/2023/10/maid-and-mental-illness-an-interview-with-dr-jeffrey-kirby/

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  4. Is it that eating frozen dinners makes you depressed? Or is it that being depressed makes it more likely that a frozen dinner is what can be managed? Personally, I am not up for chopping up all the broccoli when I can buy a frozen broccoli pasta bowl, microwave it, and not have produce rot in the fridge.

    Consider also that it is the conservative politics that are destroying public transportation, good jobs, access to medical and mental health care, as well as the policies that lead to food deserts in urban neighborhoods. I’m not sure who these neoliberals are you mention, but there is ample data on the difficulty of people living in poverty, ie people with mental health conditions, in accessing fresh food.

    My two points then, are that correlation is not causation, and that the system that prevents fresh food from being widely available is wide, deep, and difficult for the individual to overcome.

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