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Ultra-processed foods, or UPFs, are foods made using different (but usually many) levels of industrial processing. They also usually include ingredients like preservatives, artificial sweeteners and emulsifiers, which people don’t usually cook with at home.
For decades now, researchers have been looking into how UPF-rich diets affect our health. While we’re told that these foods are safe to eat, health trends show that as consumption of UPF rises in certain areas, so have rates of diabetes and cancer. In a study done earlier this year, it was found that higher consumption of UPF could be linked to an increased risk of cancer in general and ovarian and brain cancers in particular.
It’s not exactly news that UPFs aren’t great for our physical health. Lately, though, we’ve begun learning the effects they may have on mental health. Recent research shows that UPFs might affect our mood. A 2022 study found that the more of them participants ate, the more likely they were to report mild depression or feelings of anxiety.
“There was a significant increase in mentally unhealthy days for those eating 60% or more of their calories from UPFs,” said Dr. Hecht, the study’s author. “This is not proof of causation, but we can say that there seems to be an association.”
There have also been studies linking high UPF diets to worse cognitive function and cognitive decline. It’s hard to explain why, exactly. But it could have something to do with how the gut and brain interact.
“We produce over 90% 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,” said Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist at the Massachusetts General Hospital and author of “This is Your Brain on Food.” She added, “This enables a natural symbiosis between food and the body’s brain chemistry.
Sometimes, we all need to lean on processed foods. They’re more accessible, less expensive and don’t require a lot of cook time. Plus, they taste pretty good. But it’s worth noting that health professionals are concerned about overconsuming them over long periods of time. So, as the saying goes – everything in moderation.