Is There A Link Between Ultra Processed Food and Depression?

Is There A Link Between Ultra Processed Food and Depression?

Ultra processed food (UPF) is clearly awful for our physical health. Regular consumption of UPFs leads to fat gain, muscle loss and a whole host of chronic diseases. But what about the impact they have on mental health? Could the consumption of ultra processed food be linked to mental health illness like depression? Let’s find out 👇

Our award-winning sports nutrition is NOT ultra processed food

Ultra processed food and physical health

We’re all well aware of the impact food has on our physiology. It’s pretty simple: consume a diet high in ultra processed food (junk food, sugary drinks, baked goods, trans fats and so on) and your body will suffer. You’ll gain fat, lose muscle, throw hormones out of balance and your energy levels will plummet. You’ll also be at considerably greater risk of a whole host of chronic diseases.

ultra processed food and depression - unhealthy

We all know too many of these are bad for us

In short, we all know that consuming an “unhealthy diet” has pretty catastrophic consequences for our physical health.

How to avoid ultra processed food

Why, then, are we only now just connecting the dots when it comes to mental health? Why would food proven to be awful for our body not have the same impact on our brain, emotions, psychology and general mental health?

Come to think of it, it seems so obvious doesn’t it!

We’re going to dive into recently published research in this area, but first let’s remind ourselves what ultra processed food actually is.

ultra processed food and depression - pot noodle

Is there a link between ready meals like this and depression?

What is ultra processed food?

We’ve written a blog post explaining what ultra processed food is and the various classifications. Check it out. In short, ultra processed foods are things like packaged snack, sugry drinks, fast food, packaged baked goods and instant snacks.

They're designed to be highly profitable (low-cost ingredients, long shelf-life), convenient (ready-to-consume) and hyper-palatable (easy to eat but leave you feeling hungry soon after).

Ultra processed food and depression

This study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders examined the eating habits and mental health of 31,000 middle aged women over the course of 14 years. It was an enormous, deeply comprehensive study so the results are statistically very significant.

The study discovered that those who consumed the highest amount of ultra processed foods (even adjusting for sociodemographic characteristics and lifestyle) were 23% more likely to develop depression.

ultra processed food and depression - sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners and artificially sweetened beverages are particularly bad

Going one step further in an attempt to decipher if some UPFs were worse than others, they noted “These findings suggest that greater UPF intake, particularly artificial sweeteners and artificially sweetened beverages, is associated with increased risk of depression.”

This is interesting for us as a sport nutrition brand because our industry has been – and continues to be – filled with products packed with artificial sweeteners (as well as added sugars, cheap factory-made sugar alternatives and preservatives) for decades.

Ultra processed food in sports nutrition

Awareness of the dangers of consuming UPFs is becoming more prevalent, but for some reason there’s a (mis)conception that these foods aren’t bad for you if they’re branded as “sports nutrition”.

The contents of these bottles are marketed as superb for performance...but they're little more than artificial sweetners and additives...


Maybe it’s due to crafty marketing tactics and the fact ordinary sports nutrition is generally used to supplement exercise and performance and thus must be good. But you wouldn’t find one of these companies labelling a doughnut as a performance-enhancing product even if consumed while riding a bicycle, so why do their additive and sweetener-pacled beverages get different treatment?

It’s a huge topic, and not the subject of this blog post, but in short this is the crux of it:

Most (not all) sports nutrition is ultra processed food and will have the same impact on your physical and mental health as all other ultra processed food.

Just let that sink in…

Why does ultra processed food cause depression?

A lot of studies show the beneficial impact of nutrient-dense foods on physical and mental health, but the reasoning behind the emerging link between UPFs and declining mental health is still somewhat speculation, even if the link is indeed clear.

ultra processed food and depression - mental health

The link between UPFs and depression is becoming better understood

Experts believe the answer likely lies in the gut. The connection between gut and brain health is close and is becoming better understood with every study completed. There’s already a proven association between people with depression and a poor gut microbiome, and the link between ultra processed foods and a compromised gut are well known, so it’s not a huge leap to assume the gut plays a significant role.

Ultra processed food and depression – conclusion

Even despite the growing data supporting the relation between regular UPF consumption and depression, a subjective measure can also be taken into consideration. It’s rare to eat a load of rubbish and genuinely feel elated, positive and motivated afterwards. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes there’s nothing better than a can of fizzy drink or Danish pastry, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

ultra processed food and depression - junk food

There's abslutely nothing wrong with a good pizza now and again!

It works the other way too: when you feel low, stressed or anxious, you’re more likely to reach for unhealthy foods (including ultra processed ones) which are high sugar, fat and chemical additives. Unfortunately, this just contributes to the downward spiral.

We’ve probably all experienced the low mood after consuming ultra processed food. That’ll stem from feelings of shame, guilt and low-worth (again, a topic for another blog), but now the science is showing us an actual cause and effect: ultra processed foods will make depression more likely.

ultra processed food and depression - healthy sports nutrition

Our award-winning sports nutrition is made with 100% natural, healthy superfood ingredients. We will never ever use ultra processed food

So, as we said earlier, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the odd greasy burger or can of Coke but be aware that regular consumption of UPFs (including ordinary sports nutrition) is detrimental to both your physical and mental wellbeing.

More performance boosting content

From the YouTube Channel – Ultra processed foods: what are they?

From the 33Fuel Podcast – Eat clean, run dirty

From the Blog

What is ultra processed food

Nutrient density and performance

Gut health – good and bad foods

Inflammation and food: what’s the deal?

How to avoid ultra processed food

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