By Kelley Herring
Do you sometimes crave foods that are starchy, sugary, creamy, fatty, or salty? And do you sometimes lean on these foods to give you a boost of energy, to beat boredom, or to lift your mood when you’re feeling anxious or blue?
Of course, we all do!
That’s why they’re called “comfort foods.”
In a 2017 article, the International Journal of Gastronomy & Food Science defined comfort foods as those foods that provide “consolation or a feeling of well-being.”[i]
You know the ones I’m talking about… the processed foods and snacks found in the interior aisles of the grocery, like macaroni and cheese, casseroles, cereal, pasta, pizza, breads, cookies, pies, and candy.
And while it’s true that many of these foods hold a special place in our heart, evoking nostalgic memories of family, holidays, and special occasions… we most often turn to these foods for emotional support and a quick pick-me-up.
These foods seem to soothe our soul… at least in the moment.
But what if it’s these are the very foods that are making us sad and anxiety-ridden to begin with?
While we’ve long known that foods that impact our blood sugar can also impact our mental health, new research shows there’s more to the story.
Processed Foods Linked with Worse Mental Health
Ultra-processed foods are defined as those created from extensive ‘physical, biological, and chemical processes’. This typically includes a laundry list of flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers and other additives… and little or no real, whole food.
As a result, ultra-processed foods are not only high in sugar, unhealthy fats and salt – they are also low in protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.
Research shows that these foods dysregulate insulin levels in the brain. This can have a strong impact on your mood. It also reduces serotonin and dopamine and increases neuroinflammation (inflammation in the brain). What’s more, a diet high in processed foods also adversely affects your microbiome. This can also lead to systemic and brain inflammation and dysregulates mood.[ii][iii]
Researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s Schmidt College of Medicine set out to determine if people who consume high amounts of ultra-processed foods experienced more negative mental health symptoms including depression, anxiety and mentally unhealthy days.
Using the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the researchers measured mild depression, the total number of mental unhealthy days and the number of anxious days reported by more than 10,000 adult subjects.
They discovered that individuals who consumed the most ultra-processed foods – compared to those who consumed the least – had statistically-significant increases in the symptoms of depression and a much higher number of days reported as “mentally unhealthy” and or “anxious”.[iv]
This is especially concerning, considering that more than 70 percent of packaged foods in the U.S. are classified as “ultra-processed” and represent about 60 percent of all calories consumed by Americans.[v]
Charles H. Hennekens, M.D., Dr.PH, co-author of the study says:
“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”
Whole Foods for Mental Health
The good news is that your mental well-being is supported by a diet based on whole foods that stabilize blood sugar, optimize the ratio of healthy fats (including omega-3s), and infuse your body and brain with the vital nutrients you need.[vi][vii]
Even more encouraging? Research shows mental health can turn around in as little as three months on a healthy, whole-foods diet.[viii]
When it comes to your mental health, it is also important to spend some time in the sun each day and to exercise consistently. And when it comes to the food on your plate, be sure to focus on the whole, mood-boosting foods that come in Mother Nature’s perfect packaging.
Here are a few meal ideas to get you started:
- Grass-Fed Steak & Eggs with Berries
- Wild Salmon with Pesto & Mixed Green Salad
- Pastured Pork Chops with Sauerkraut & Apples
- Farmer’s Omelet with Grass-Fed Cheese
Love comfort foods, but not the carbs? Check out Kelley’s FREE new book – Carb Lover’s Keto – with 100 recipes for all of your favorite comfort foods. From Chicken Parmigiana and Coconut Shrimp to Buffalo Wings and Pizza. Discover how you can indulge – 100% guilt free!
[ii] Kaplan, BJ, Rucklidge, JJ, Romijn, A et al. (2015) The emerging field of nutritional mental health: inflammation, the microbiome, oxidative stress, and mitochondrial function. Clin Psychol Sci 3, 964–980.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
[iii] Melo, HM, Santos, LE & Ferreira, ST (2019) Diet-derived fatty acids, brain inflammation, and mental health. Front Neurosci 13, 265.
[iv] Eric M Hecht, Anna Rabil, Euridice Martinez Steele, Gary A Abrams, Deanna Ware, David C Landy, Charles H Hennekens. Cross-sectional examination of ultra-processed food consumption and adverse mental health symptoms. Public Health Nutrition, 2022; 1 DOI: 10.1017/S1368980022001586
[v] Martínez Steele, E, Baraldi, LG, Louzada, ML et al. (2016) Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study. BMJ Open 6, e009892.
[vi] Jacka, FN, O’Neil, A, Opie, R et al. (2017) A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). BMC Med 15, 23.
[vii] Lin, PY, Huang, SY & Su, KP (2010) A meta-analytic review of polyunsaturated fatty acid compositions in patients with depression. Biol Psychiatry 68, 140–147.
[viii] Jacka, FN, O’Neil, A, Opie, R et al. (2017) A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). BMC Med 15, 23