Link between fast food and depression confirmed

According to a recent study headed by scientists from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and the University of Granada, eating commercial baked goods (fairy cakes, croissants, doughnuts, etc.) and fast food (hamburgers, hotdogs and pizza) is linked to depression.

Published in the Public Health Nutrition journal, the results reveal that consumers of fast food, compared to those who eat little or none, are 51% more likely to develop depression.

Furthermore, a dose-response relationship was observed. In other words this means that “the more fast food you consume, the greater the risk of depression,” explains Almudena Sánchez-Villegas, lead author of the study.

The study demonstrates that those participants who eat the most fast food and commercial baked goods are more likely to be single, less active and have poor dietary habits, which include eating less fruit, nuts, fish, vegetables and olive oil. Smoking and working more than 45 hours per week are other prevalent characteristics of this group.

A long-term study

With regard to the consumption of commercial baked goods, the results are equally conclusive. “Even eating small quantities is linked to a significantly higher chance of developing depression,” as the university researcher from the Canary Islands points out.


The study sample belonged to the SUN Project (University of Navarra Diet and Lifestyle Tracking Program). It consisted of 8,964 participants that had never been diagnosed with depression or taken antidepressants. They were assessed for an average of six months, and 493 were diagnosed with depression or started to take antidepressants.

This new data supports the results of the SUN project in 2011, which were published in the PLoS One journal. The project recorded 657 new cases of depression out of the 12,059 people analysed over more than six months. A 42% increase in the risk associated with fast food was found, which is lower than that found in the current study.

Sánchez-Villegas concludes that “although more studies are necessary, the intake of this type of food should be controlled because of its implications on both health (obesity, cardiovascular diseases) and mental well-being.”

The impact of diet on mental health

Depression affects 121 million people worldwide. This figure makes it one of the main global causes of disability-adjusted life year. Further still, in countries with low and medium income it is the leading cause.

However, little is known about the role that diet plays in developing depressive disorders. Previous studies suggest that certain nutrients have a preventative role. These include group B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids and olive oil. Furthermore, a healthy diet such as that enjoyed in the Mediterranean has been linked to a lower risk of developing depression.

Fast food ‘linked to depression’

“Eating junk food has a negative effect on mental health, making those who consume it regularly feel depressed,” said The Daily Telegraph.

The news is based on a Spanish study that looked at how 9,000 people’s consumption of fast food and baked goods, such as pies and pastries, related to their risk of depression. In a week when tax on pasties and pies has been the source of great distress for some, researchers found that people who consumed the most fast food and baked good were 37% more likely to become depressed over a six-year period than people with the lowest consumption.

This study had some strengths. For example, it established people’s diets before they were followed to see if they developed depression, which means their diets preceded their depression. However, it cannot conclusively show that fast food directly causes depression. For example, it is just as plausible that diet and depression are both the result of a common factor. Therefore, it’s too early to rebrand the burger and fries as an “unhappy meal”.

Where did the story come from?

This Spanish study was carried out by researchers from the University of Las Palmas in Gran Canaria and the University of Navarra. It was funded by the Spanish Government’s Carlos III Institute of Health.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Public Health Nutrition.

The study’s methods were covered appropriately by the media. However, the 51% increase in risk of depression that was quoted by the Telegraph and Daily Mail did not appear in the research paper. The paper reported an increased risk of 37%.

What kind of research was this?

This prospective cohort study assessed the relationship between eating fast food or processed pastries and developing clinical depression. The research project, called Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra (SUN), is a long-running cohort study that involves university graduates in Spain. The study continuously recruits new participants, and collects data on a variety of factors using mailed questionnaires.

Prospective cohort studies assess participants and then look at the development of various factors over time. They have the advantage of initially measuring the exposure of interest (in this case, consumption of fast foods or processed pastries) in a group of people who do not already have the outcome of interest (in this case, clinical depression). This allows the researchers to be certain that the exposure came before the outcome, which is important for determining a cause-and-effect relationship.

Cohort studies can collect data on a number of other factors that may also account for the relationship between the exposure and outcome. These factors are known as confounders. Adjusting their results to account for the influence of confounders allows researchers to be fairly certain that these confounding factors do not influence the results. However, they cannot take into account factors that weren’t measured during the study. Therefore, it is possible that, during a cohort study, unknown factors may account for the relationship seen, rather than the exposure of interest.

What did the research involve?

The researchers used data from the SUN study to identify participants for their research. They included people who did not have a clinical diagnosis of depression and who were not taking antidepressant medication (to ensure that the participants were free of depression at the beginning of the study). All participants were also free of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension.

The participants completed the food frequency questionnaire at the beginning of the study. They assessed two exposure variables: fast food consumption (which included hamburgers, sausages and pizza) and consumption of commercial baked goods (which included muffins, doughnuts, croissants and other baked goods). The researchers then divided the cohort into five groups (quintiles), based on the amount of each food group that they usually consumed.

The participants were then followed up for a median of 6.2 years. The researchers used a mailed questionnaire to determine whether the person had been diagnosed with clinical depression or had been prescribed antidepressant medication during this time.

The researchers collected data on other variables they thought might influence the relationship between eating habits and depression. These included age, sex, body mass index, smoking status, physical activity level, total energy intake and healthy food consumption. They then adjusted for the influence of these variables during the statistical analysis.

What were the basic results?

In total, 8,964 participants were included in the study. Participants with the highest consumption (quintile 5) of fast food and baked goods were more likely to be single, younger, less active and have worse dietary habits than participants with the lowest consumption (quintile 1).

After a median follow-up of 6.2 years, 493 cases of clinical depression were reported.

When assessing the relationship between fast food consumption and the development of depression, the researchers found:

  • There were 97 cases of depression in the group with the lowest consumption (quintile 1) compared with 118 cases in the group with the highest consumption (quintile 5). When the sizes of the quintiles were taken into account, this equated to people with the highest levels of consumption having a 37% greater risk of developing depression than those with the lowest levels of consumption (hazard ratio 1.37, 95% confidence interval 1.01 to 1.85).
  • Intermediate levels of consumption (quintiles 2, 3 or 4) were not associated with significantly increased risk of developing depression compared to the lowest consumption level.

When assessing the relationship between commercial pastry consumption and the development of depression, the researchers found:

  • People with the highest level of consumption (quintile 5) had a 37% increased risk of developing depression compared to the lowest consumption group (quintile 1) (HR 1.37, 95% CI 1.01 to 1.85).

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers concluded that their results demonstrate “a positive dose-response relationship between the consumption of fast food and the risk of depression”. In other words, as consumption of fast food increases, so does the risk of depression. They also said that “consumption of commercial baked goods was also positively associated to depressive disorders.”


This study has found an association between consuming high levels of fast food and baked goods and the risk of developing depression. Even though this was a prospective study, it cannot conclusively show that eating lots of hamburgers, sausages and pizza causes depression. The tendency to consume fast food and develop depression may both have stemmed from some common factor, rather than fast food directly causing depression. For example, participants with the highest fast food consumption were generally all single, younger and less active, which may have influenced both their diet and their risk of depression.

Several important factors should be noted:

  • This study used a questionnaire to determine whether a person had clinical depression. This method may be less reliable than either a clinical interview or a diagnosis confirmed by medical records. Some people with depression may not have reported that they had been given a diagnosis. Alternatively, other people may have considered themselves to have depression without having a clinical diagnosis from a doctor. Equally, some people who would have met diagnostic criteria for depression had they seen a doctor may not have realised that they had the condition.
  • Though the researchers adjusted their results for lifestyle and socioeconomic factors that may have influenced diet and depression risk (potentially confounding the relationship between the two), depression may be triggered by many factors. It is difficult to ensure that all possible confounders were taken into account.
  • If there is a direct association between these dietary items and risk of depression, the underlying mechanism by which eating these foods could lead to depression is not known.
  • The cohort excluded people with multiple underlying illnesses and conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. While this allowed the researcher to ensure these conditions did not influence their results, it makes it difficult to generalise the results to the wider population. Also, these types of illnesses may influence both diet and risk of depression, so it is arguable that including people with them could have been a valid option.
  • The cohort was divided into groups based on their relative consumption of fast foods and commercial baked goods, and not on an absolute level of consumption. Therefore, the results of this study would only apply to a population that had a similar pattern of consumption.

Overall, this study suggests that there may be an association between eating a lot of fast food or baked goods and developing depression. It is, however, difficult to apply the findings to other groups of people, and it is unclear if the relationship would remain under different conditions.

Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Website

Links to the headlines

Fast food ‘gives you the blues’, study finds

The Daily Telegraph, 2 April 2012

Junk food is not just bad for your waistline… it can give you the blues too

Daily Mail, 2 April 2012

Links to the science

Sánchez-Villegas A, Toledo E, de Irala J et al.

Fast-food and commercial baked goods consumption and the risk of depression

Public Health Nutrition, March 2012, 15: pp 424-432

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Some evidence does suggest that the trans-fats and saturated fats in some junk foods increase the risk of depression. The latest findings on this topic come from Spanish researchers who followed the diet and lifestyle of more than 12,000 men and women for six years. At the outset, none of the participants had been diagnosed with depression, but at the study’s end, 657 were found to be depressed.

The investigators reported that participants with an elevated consumption of trans-fats found in commercially produced baked goods and fast foods had up to a 48 percent increase in the risk of depression compared to participants who didn’t eat these foods. The researchers also found that those participants whose diets contained more olive oil and fish were at lower risk of depression.

All told, the Spanish team suggested that the increased incidence in depression seen in recent years results from “radical changes in the source of fats consumed in Western diets.” They noted that the risk of depression increased in the study for participants who consumed junk foods even though the actual intake of trans-fats made up only 0.4 percent of total calories of those who ate the most of these foods. The study was published on Jan. 26, 2010 in the online journal PLoS ONE.

This wasn’t the first report of a relationship between junk food and depression. In 2009 British researchers published a study involving nearly 3,500 middle aged men and women. They reported that after five years, participants who ate a diet high in processed meat, chocolates, sweet desserts, fried food, refined cereals and high-fat dairy products were 58 percent more likely to be depressed than those whose diets were composed mainly of fruit, vegetables and fish. The study was published in the November 2009 issue of The British Journal of Psychiatry.

While there are many theories about mood disorders, the actual causes of depression remain unclear. I’m convinced that depression may represent just one manifestation of increased inflammation throughout the body. I write about this in the book I’m just finishing, Spontaneous Happiness, to be published in November, 2011 by Little, Brown.

The fats in junk foods may well contribute to depression as these studies suggest, because they are pro-inflammatory. My anti-inflammatory diet might help both prevent and treat depression. As you know, it emphasizes anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats and health-protective vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

Eating junk food increases the risk of becoming depressed, a study has found, prompting calls for doctors to routinely give dietary advice to patients as part of their treatment for depression.

In contrast, those who follow a traditional Mediterranean diet are much less likely to develop depression because the fish, fruit, nuts and vegetables that diet involves help protect against Britain’s commonest mental health problem, the research suggests.

Published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, the findings have come from an analysis by researchers from Britain, Spain and Australia who examined 41 previous studies on the links between diet and depression.

“A pro-inflammatory diet can induce systemic inflammation, and this can directly increase the risk for depression,” said Dr Camille Lassale, the study’s lead author. Bad diet heightens the risk of depression to a significant extent, she added.

The analysis found that foods containing a lot of fat or sugar, or was processed, lead to inflammation of not just the gut but the whole body, known as “systemic inflammation”. In that respect the impact of poor diet is like that of smoking, pollution, obesity and lack of exercise.

“Chronic inflammation can affect mental health by transporting pro-inflammatory molecules into the brain, it can also affect the molecules – neurotransmitters – responsible for mood regulation,” said Lassale, who is based at the department of epidemiology and public health at University College London.

The research showed that poor diet has a likely causal link with the onset of depression and not merely an association. They did not find that their results were explained by people who are depressed eating more poor quality food, or that they were depressed to start with, she stressed.

They based their conclusions on reviewing five longitudinal studies of 32,908 adults from the UK, France, Spain, Australia and the US.

“Poor diet may increase the risk of depression as these are results from longitudinal studies which excluded people with depression at the beginning of the study. Therefore the studies looked at how diet at baseline is related to new cases of depression,” Lassale said.

One in six adults in the UK are thought to experience depression, often alongside anxiety. The Centre for Mental Health thinktank has estimated the illness’s overall cost to society, including lost productivity as well as NHS treatment, is £105bn a year.

Dr Tasnime Akbaraly, another UCL academic who co-authored the research, said: “Added to recent randomised trials showing beneficial effects of dietary improvement on depression outcomes, there are now strong arguments in favour of regarding diet as mainstream in psychiatric medicine.

“Our study findings support routine dietary counselling as part of a doctor’s office visit, especially with mental health practitioners.”

Dr Cosmo Hallstrom, a depression expert and fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said that if junk food did raise the risk of depression then an unhealthy diet was not just bad for the body but also the mind. “The chemistry in the gut is very similar to the chemistry in the brain. So it’s not surprising that things that influence the gut might influence the brain too,” he added.

Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “This large-scale study provides further supportive evidence that eating a healthy diet can improve our mood and help give us more energy. It adds to the growing body of research which shows that what we eat may have an impact on our mental health.

“Increasingly, more GPs are recommending that their patients try to make sensible diet and lifestyle changes as part of a holistic approach to the management of chronic diseases because we know it may have a range of a positive effects on our patients’ physical and mental health.”

However, the study’s claims about the Mediterranean diet were criticised by Naveed Sattar, professor of metabolic medicine at the University of Glasgow.

“The current evidence is not sufficient to prove plant-rich diets can prevent depression as most of the evidence so far simply shows that those with poorer mental health eat worse. Also the link to inflammation as a plausible mechanism to explain a link between diet and mind health is highly tenuous.”

• This article was amended on 27 September 2018. An earlier version said that “the research showed that poor diet has a causal link with the onset of depression”. That has been corrected to “a likely causal link” to more accurately reflect the research findings.

Is Junk Food Making You Depressed?

The saying goes that “you are what you eat.” And, according to new research, if you eat a lot of fast food, what you might be is depressed. Published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, the study found that people who eat fast food and commercial baked goods are 51 percent more likely to develop depression than those who eat little to none.

For about six months, researchers from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and the University of Granada surveyed 8,964 participants who had never been diagnosed with depression or taken antidepressants. “Junk food” was defined as eating commercial baked goods (such as cakes, croissants, and doughnuts) and fast food (such as hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza). Researchers found that the more junk food people ate, the stronger the link to depression was.

Despite the association, junk food was not the only possible cause of depression. The study showed that those who ate the most fast food and commercial baked goods were also more likely to be single, less active, and have poor dietary habits, which includes eating less fruit, nuts, fish, vegetables, and olive oil. Those who were depressed were also more likely to be smokers and work more than 45 hours per week, according to the study.

This isn’t the first time highly processed foods have been linked to depression or low mood, says Mary Hartley, a registered dietitian in New York City. A 2009 study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found similar results.

“I have not seen a study in support of junk food (empty calories) and mental health, although people should realize that minimally processed foods (bagged salads, roasted nuts, canned tuna, frozen fruit, nut butters, tomato sauce, etc.) are fine,” Hartley says. “But people who have poor-quality diets often have subclinical deficiencies of essential nutrients. The body needs nutrients to make neurotransmitters, and so, sure, nutrient deficiencies may have a role in some mental and behavioral disorders.”

In fact, research has shown that certain nutrients have a preventative role in depression, she says. For example, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, vitamin E, iron, magnesium and zinc have all been linked to depression or its prevention. In another study, foods eaten when following a Mediterranean Diet were linked to a lower risk of depression.

“Foods rich in the B-vitamins, folic acid, such as lentils, bean, spinach, oranges, asparagus, avocado, seeds, tomatoes, and fortified cereals, might help,” Hartley says. “And foods high in vitamin D may help, too. Those include fatty fish, egg yolks, and milk. As well as the sun itself, the most important source of vitamin D.”

The bottom line is that an all-around balanced diet is good for the mood. And an unhealthy diet? Well, it’s good to avoid for a number of reasons.

“No one should eat junk food on a regular basis,” Hartley says. “And, people who are depressed should get the help they need in order to make an extra effort to take better care of their physical health: eat a balanced wholesome diet, get physical activity, no smoking or excess alcohol, get enough sleep, etc.”

Have you noticed a connection between eating junk food and mood? Tell us about it!

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Jennipher Walters is the CEO and co-founder of the healthy living websites and A certified personal trainer, lifestyle and weight management coach and group exercise instructor, she also holds an MA in health journalism and regularly writes about all things fitness and wellness for various online publications.

  • By Jennipher Walters

There’s a Drawback of Junk Food You May Not Have Considered

Adobe: Feodora

Researchers in Britain, Spain, and Australia, have linked unhealthy eating (specifically of junk food) to greater risk of developing clinical depression.

The study, which looked at data from 41 previous studies, was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry. Health officials overseas are being asked to consider giving dietary advice to patients who face depression and other mental health issues following the new research.

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While it’s not clear that eating junk food causes depression, their research shows that people who frequently consume high-fat and heavily processed foods are at much greater risk of being diagnosed with chronic depression. And they theorize ways in which junk food could actually be responsible.

There is a bright spot in the research, however. Those who follow what is often termed a Mediterranean diet, consisting of mostly fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, and lean protein, “is associated with reduced risk of depressive symptoms or clinical depression,” according to the study.

The review explicitly implicates unhealthy foods that lead to chronic inflammation as associated with a higher risk of depression. Dr. Camille Lassale, the study’s lead author, posits that, since high fat processed foods can lead to inflammation across the digestive system, eventually pro-inflammatory molecules may travel to the brain and affect neurotransmitters in charge of regulating your mood.

The link between poor dietary choices and chronic depression isn’t merely an association, the Guardian reports. In Britain alone, one in six people will or are currently experiencing depression, as well as some form of anxiety.

“Poor diet may increase the risk of depression as these are results from longitudinal studies which excluded people with depression at the beginning of the study. Therefore the studies looked at how diet at baseline is related to new cases of depression,” Lassale told the Guardian.

More scientific research on diet and holistic health:

  • Your Body Treats Fast Food Like a Bacterial Infection
  • Study Finds Links Between Household Disinfectants, Obesity
  • Low-Carb Diets Work, But They Aren’t Necessarily Healthy
  • Study Suggests Dietary Habits Affect Mood Differently as You Age

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners in the United Kingdom, said that more doctors are asking patients to change lifestyle habits and diets in new approaches to managing chronic diseases—especially because of the positive side-effects seen in mental health.

“This large-scale study provides further supportive evidence that eating a healthy diet can improve our mood and help give us more energy,” Stokes-Lampard told the Guardian. “It adds to the growing body of research which shows that what we eat may have an impact on our mental health.

15 Foods That Make Your Depression or Anxiety Worse

You already know that your emotions can influence what you eat. But what you may not realize is that what you eat can also dramatically alter your mental health. Seriously: some foods worsen anxiety and depression.

Simple food choices can make the difference between feeling worse and feeling more stable, says research from Harvard Health. Eighteen percent of the population suffers some form of anxiety disorder, and 6.7 percent of the American population over the age of 18 have been diagnosed with clinical depression, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

You don’t have to be officially diagnosed (many people aren’t, anyway) to know what an overwhelming burden it can be when you are even marginally anxious or depressed. And while the two aren’t necessarily inclusive of each other, we’ve chosen to focus on them together since we can all relate to how both conditions weigh us down.

The good news is that while there are plenty of potential causes for either situation, the foods we consume can play a major role in increasing the frequency, depth, and duration of bouts of depression or anxiety, especially if we’re already predisposed to experiencing them. Your best move is to familiarize yourself with some of the foods that have been repeatedly linked with doing more damage to your psyche—and then drastically reduce your consumption of them.

Category 1: Foods That Make You More Depressed

Steer clear of these foods and ingredients that have been found to have a negative impact on your mood.



We despise sugar at Eat This, Not That! for a variety of reasons; its strong association with depression is just one. A 2015 study of postmenopausal women demonstrated that an increase in added sugars in their diet was associated with an increased likelihood of depression. In the past, scientists weren’t sure why depression, diabetes, and dementia seemed to cluster in epidemiological studies or why having one of these health issues increases your risk for the others. But in a study published the journal Diabetologia, researchers have found that when blood glucose levels are elevated, levels of a protein that encourages the growth of neurons and synapses drops. Translation: The simple act of eating sugar makes your brain work at a suboptimal level—and the more you do it, the greater your risk of depression and the greater your risk of diabetes and dementia, too.


Artificial Sweeteners

Don’t think that just because sugar is out that artificial sweeteners will enable you can humor your sweet tooth without elevating your risk of depression. Aspartame, the common (and dangerous) ingredient that’s found in products like diet soda, blocks the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. This can cause all manner of neuro maladies including headaches, insomnia, changes in mood—and yes, depression. But it’s not just aspartame: NutraSweet or Equal may also be bad for your mental well-being.



Your central nervous system is important, to put it lightly. It’s responsible for taking in information through the five senses, thinking, understanding, reasoning, and controlling motor function. You’ll note that all of these things are in scant supply as the night wears on at your local watering hole. That’s because alcohol is a depressant, and more specifically, depresses the working order of the central nervous system. Oh, and the central nervous system controls how we process emotions, too. Bottom line: Booze is a little too efficient at exacerbating symptoms associated with depression. If you pull back on swigging ’em back, you may be amazed by the benefits of not drinking.


Hydrogenated Oil

Fried chicken, fried cheese sticks, fried calamari, French fries. You won’t ever see these items marked as an “Eat This.” They cause trouble for your body for a variety of reasons and can wreak havoc on your weight. But there’s more: They’re also linked to depression. See, deep frying is usually done in partially hydrogenated oil. Hydrogenation is a process that turns vegetable oil into a more solid form, which makes it a more shelf-stable product. Anything that is cooked with hydrogenated oils and contains trans fats could potentially contribute to depression. Saturated fats, like the ones found in deli meats, high-fat dairy, and butter can clog arteries and prevent blood flow to the brain—and optimal brain function is what you want, if you’re trying to stave off the blues.


Fast Food

Cheap and easy? In the short term, kinda sorta. But once you factor in the changes it can make to your physical and mental well being, the true price of that cheap stuff gets steep real fast. According to a 2012 study in the journal Public Health Nutrition, people who eat fast food are 51 percent more likely to develop depression than those who don’t. To clarify: When we say fast food, we’re talking about hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, and commercial baked goods. Eating a small portion of any one food is unlikely to raise depression risk, but if you see Ronald, Wendy, The Colonel or Popeye on a regular basis, a drastic dietary adjustment would be a great step toward happier feelings and less depression.


Trans Fats

Trans fat is the name given to unsaturated fats that don’t usually occur in whole foods. Only in the 1950s did trans fats become commonly used in things like margarine, snack food, packaged baked goods, and oils used to fry fast food. Consuming artery-clogging trans fats can increase your risk of depression by as much as 48 percent, according to a study published in PLoS One. Conversely, plenty of studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet, which traditionally utilizes olive oil rather than trans fats, can lower the risk of numerous health conditions, including depression.


High-Sodium Foods

For decades, fat-free foods have been touted as being a weight loss solution—but many of these products contain mini mountains of sodium. Experts say that all that extra salt can totally futz with your emotions because the extra sodium in these products can disrupt aspects of your neurological system. Not only can this directly contribute to depression, but it can also monkey with your immune system response and cause fatigue. An over-taxed body is a way to invite disruption to your emotional state. And, of course, an excess of salt also leads to fluid retention and bloating. Like many of the foods on this list, salt can contribute to weight gain, resulting in a negative body image and snowballing depression even further.



There are plenty of experts who will tell you that even a modest amount of caffeine can contribute to depression—and at least one study has found that, among healthy college students, moderate and high coffee drinkers scored higher on a depression scale than others. The reason most experts cite is caffeine’s disruptive effect on sleep. Coffee and black tea make it more difficult to fall asleep and to stay asleep. Sleep is connected to mood and disturbed sleep can seriously mess with your mental state. The one drink to avoid at all costs if you plan on going to bed any time in the next 24 hours? Energy drinks. Some types have the caffeine equivalent of 14 cans of soda.

Category 2: Foods That Make You More Anxious

Avoid these anxiety trigger foods and nourish away the nerves, one meal at a time.


Wheat Bran

Touted by health experts and foodies for its impressive fiber content and complex, nutty flavor, wheat bran gets a black mark in the anti-anxiety department for its notoriously high concentration of phytic acid. This anti-nutrient binds to important mood minerals like zinc and limits their absorption. Adequate levels of zinc are especially important for anxious people, as deficiencies are common and have shown to induce anxious behavior and depression. Soaking and cooking can help reduce the anti-nutrient which is found primarily in whole grains and dried beans; so make the extra step a staple of your kitchen when preparing rice, oatmeal, soups, and stews.



Soy is like that date who demands affection while refusing PDA and cuddling. Even though soy is packed with lean protein, it’s also packed with trypsin and protease inhibitors — enzymes that make the digestion of protein incredibly difficult. Soy is also high in copper, a mineral linked to anxious behavior, and loaded with oligosaccharides, which are known to cause flatulence. (Terrific for social anxiety…Just kidding.) Toss the processed tofu and veggie burgers, and if you must eat soy, stick to fermented varieties like tempeh and miso, which are easier to digest.



That’ll be a grande latte and a venti panic attack? Coffee is like jet fuel for an anxious brain. It’s one of the highest concentrated dietary sources of caffeine, and research shows that people with social anxiety are particularly sensitive to feeling nervous side effects from just small amounts of the stimulant. Caffeine can also blunt the absorption of key mood-balancing nutrients like vitamin D and the B vitamins. When weaning off the jumpy stuff, naturally decaffeinated herbals teas, especially chamomile, can be a great alternative to coffee and may also provide meaningful antianxiety and antidepressant activity, research suggests.


Whole-Wheat Bread

Gluten is the sticking point for many anxious people, especially patients with celiac disease—among whom anxiety traits are common, and can disappear when gluten is removed. But even folks with milder allergies can find the glue-like starch triggering. Need one more reason to weed out the wheat? Most non-organic wheat is treated with glyphosate, an herbicide shown to cause nutrient deficiencies, especially in mood-stabilizing minerals.


Canned Soup

If grandma wouldn’t recognize it, cook with it, or enjoy eating it, get rid of it. That’s the basic nutrition advice from most anti-anxiety experts who recommend a traditional, whole foods diet. “I have my clients avoid processed foods at all costs,” explains certified nutritionist Trudy Scott, author of The Antianxiety Food Solution. “The foods you choose shouldn’t have labels; and if they do, they shouldn’t read like a chemistry experiment,” she adds. Even the packaging of “convenience” foods may be a cause for—and cause of—concern. Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in most canned food liners and plastic containers, can throw off important mood-stabilizing neurotransmitters by significantly altering genes in the stress-mediating portion of the brain, research shows. A previous study found children exposed to BPA in early childhood were more likely to have anxiety issues, according to researchers at the University of California–Berkeley.


Apple Juice

Things may have gone a little differently for Snow White had she been tricked by a witch with a glass of apple juice. She’d probably still pass out—but not before running around the house in a nervous panic. That’s because, unlike whole fruits, juices are devoid of slow-digesting fiber and loaded with refined fructose. The result is a blood sugar spike that triggers a rush of the stress hormone adrenaline, with symptoms that look a lot like a panic attack. In fact, a recent study showed fructose can alter how the brain responds to stress on a genetic level. What’s more, many apple juice brands have tested positive for arsenic — a toxin shown to induce anxious behavior and worsen depression. As a general rule, avoid all sweetened beverages. If water is boring to you, then try one of these detox waters instead!


Red Wine

Wine-ing down may only wind you up. While a glass of vino or beer may temporarily help to calm an anxious mind, research suggests the happy hour strategy may backfire long-term. People with anxiety disorders who self-medicate with alcohol or drugs were up to four times more likely to develop a dependency problem within three years than a group who skipped on self-medicating, according to a study in Alcohol Research Current Reviews. Even in the short-term, a few drinks can cause sleep problems, blood sugar swings, and dehydration—all things you want to avoid if you’re anxious. If you feel you “need” to drink, consider swapping your night-cap for a glutamine capsule. The amino acid has shown to reduce alcohol cravings and may be helpful while detoxing from it.

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Can Your Diet Make You Feel Depressed?

I am often asked whether eating particular foods can enhance mood and treat the symptoms of depression. With very few exceptions, the answer is no. In contrast, our mood can be easily depressed by our diet. Why? For adults, the brain responds primarily to deficits, not surpluses, in the diet.

For example, scientists once thought that drinking a glass of warm milk before bed or eating a large meal of protein made us drowsy because of tryptophan loading – the current evidence does not support this explanation but the claim makes an important point: we must get enough of any particular nutrient into our brain in order for us to notice any effects. Unfortunately, tryptophan has difficulty getting into our brain, particularly when consumed within the context of a large variety of other amino acids, i.e. meat.

So, what’s the scientific evidence for considering the cognitive effects of these foods? Mostly, it’s related to what happens when we do not get enough of them. For example, studies have shown that consuming too little tryptophan makes us depressed and angry; historians now blame low tryptophan diets for multiple wars and acts of cannibalism. Too little water-soluble vitamins (the B’s and C) in the diet will induce changes in brain function that we will begin to notice after a few weeks of deprivation. Many authors naively jump to the conclusion that giving high doses of such nutrients will rapidly improve our mood or thinking: sadly, this is rarely the case.

Can dietary supplements increase brain tryptophan levels and improve mood? The answer is no. There is no evidence for improving mood through dietary manipulation of tryptophan primarily because it is difficult to change plasma tryptophan levels through diet alone. Tryptophan supplementation and depletion studies suggest that altering tryptophan levels may only affect certain groups of patients who have a personal or family history of depression. Popular media articles often recommend diets and foods to increase blood tryptophan levels and raise brain serotonin levels. Such recommendations, while superficially appealing, are misleading and not supported by any current scientific studies.

The production of serotonin requires the absorption of the amino acid tryptophan from your food. Transport of this amino acid is influenced by the level of other amino acids in your blood; that level, in turn, is also influenced by what you eat. Within the neurons of your brain, tryptophan is converted to 5-hydroxy-tryptophan by tryptophan hydroxylase, an enzyme that is usually not saturated with substrate. Therefore, if you eat less tryptophan, your brain generally produces less serotonin. Conversely, providing additional tryptophan in the diet may lead to increased production of serotonin within neurons. It is worth noting, however, that simply producing more serotonin does not guarantee that the neuron will actually release it. If too much serotonin is produced inside the brain, then the excess is simply discarded. Studies have shown that depletion of this amino acid in the diet can negatively influence serotonin-controlled brain processes such as mood and sleep.

A recent study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology (2014, v. 39) investigated whether it was possible to deplete the brain’s reward chemical dopamine in humans by restricting access to the amino acid tyrosine that is required for its synthesis by the brain. Within a few hours the subjects showed a blunted reaction by their brain’s dopamine centers in response to a monetary reward. Overall, their mood was also slightly depressed. Fortunately, the effects of this experimental diet were temporary because the subjects were young and the brain was able to compensate quickly.

The overall lesson here is that if you’re feeling down, it might be your diet. However, do not expect your diet to make you feel happy; most often, a good diet will only prevent you from feeling depressed.

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford Univ Press)

The fast food industry specializes in creating increasingly large portions of perfectly fried, salty concoctions that are already responsible for a number of health conditions. Now, a growing body of research suggests that the effects of fast food diet may play out in the brain as well as the body.

The accumulation of a common nutrient found cheap, delicious fast food may have links to depressive symptoms in teens, a study published this month in the journal Physiological Reports suggests.

Researchers examined the urine samples of 84 African-American teenagers in Alabama and found high levels of sodium excretion and low levels of potassium excretion. Teens with urine high in sodium and low in potassium reported more frequent depression symptoms nearly a year later.

“Diet is important for emotional well-being

These high-sodium, low-potassium urine samples suggest that these teens were eating foods that had similar nutrition profiles. Namely, diets high in processed foods, fast food, frozen meals or salty snacks and low in fresh fruits and vegetables, explains the study’s lead author Slyvie Mrug, Ph.D., the chair of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s department of psychology.

Mrug tells Inverse that her findings highlight an important connection between emotional health and diet that might not be visible right away:

“We hear a lot about the impact of diet on obesity and other health outcomes, but this work also shows that diet is important for emotional well-being, which then affects all areas of people’s lives,” she says.

Diet and Depression

This is a small-scale study that gets right to heart of a field sometimes called nutirional psychiatry. That’s the idea that what we eat can have significant effects not only how we feel but on diagnosable mental health conditions too.

Earlier studies in this field have specifically focused on how diets rich in nutrients, like the Mediterranean diet might help prevent depression. But nutrients aren’t enough on their own. A paper published in March in JAMA showed evidence that you can’t treat depression with dietary supplements.

Mrug explains that a number of large scale studies have suggested unhealthy diets do play a role in depression, but that some of these studies have been hard to interpret, because people self-report their symptoms and their diets all at the same time.

“So those studies cannot rule out other explanations, such as depressed people choosing less healthy foods, some other factors (e.g. stress) affecting both food choices and depression, or bias due to both diet and depression being measured the same way (self-report),” she explains.

Mrug’s study looks at the connection between diet and depression from another perspective. Instead of trying to use diets to treat the condition, is it possible that a poor diet may increase the risk of depression? And if so, what nutrients may play key roles?

“This work also shows that diet is important for emotional well-being…”

Though her study still relied on self report measures, it does differ in two big ways. Firstly, she took urine samples, which allowed her to objectively measure the amount of sodium and potassium in her subjects’ diets. Then, she followed up with them a year and a half later, which is where she saw the first significant impacts of these nutrients on depression symptoms.

It May Be an Accumulation of Sodium Over Time

In the paper, Mrug and her collegaues propose that because depressive symptons didn’t emerge until a year and a half later, it may be the accumulation of sodium over time may be one way that diet influences depressive symptoms. So although an unhealthy diet may be playing a role in depressive symptoms, it may not be clear right away:

“It will be important to replicate our findings and to also investigate different time frames,” Mrug adds. “Currently we know very little about the lengths of time it may take for different nutrients to affect behavior.”

How Does an Unhealthy Diet Affect the Brain?

In the paper, the authors note that “only a handful of studies addressed role of diet in the human brain.” But Mrug proposes two ways that further studies might attempt to explain her findings.

Mrug suggests it may be worth investigating how specific dietary nutrients impact the brain.

“We know that specific nutrients directly affect the brain, which has an impact on emotion regulation,” she explains. “For example, studies with animals show that consumption of highly processed foods impairs frontal, limbic, and hippocampal areas of the brain, which then negatively affects behavior.”

Poor Diets Can Influence the Brain Through the Gut-Brain Axis

But there’s also convincing evidence that poor diets can influence the brain through the gut-brain axis — which is the idea that biochemical signals from microbiota in the gut, can influence mood.

Her paper cites a review paper from 2015, and in that paper, the authors argue that the established connections between unhealthy diet and depressions are “likely to be likely to be, at least partly, mediated by the gut microbiota.”

Mrug’s study doesn’t add any water to either of these theories, but it does help build a stronger case that diet impacts both physical and mental health. A poor diet is certainly not the only causes of significant mental health conditions like depression, but it may be a contributor that’s easy to overlook.

Abstract: This study examined the prospective role of urinary sodium and potassium excretion in depressive symptoms among urban, low‐income adolescents, and whether these relationships vary by gender. A total of 84 urban adolescents (mean age 13.36 years; 50% male; 95% African American) self‐reported on their depressive symptoms at baseline and 1.5 years later. At baseline, the youth also completed a 12‐h (overnight) urine collection at home which was used to measure sodium and potassium excretion. After adjusting for baseline depressive symptoms, age, BMI percentile, and pubertal development, greater sodium excretion and lower potassium excretion predicted more severe depressive symptoms at follow‐up, with no significant gender differences. The results suggest that consumption of foods high in sodium and low in potassium contributes to the development of depressive symptoms in early adolescence, and that diet is a modifiable risk factor for adolescent depression. Interventions focusing on diet may improve mental health in urban adolescents.

Fast food and depression

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