7 Harmful Effects of Processed Food on Mental Health

processed food

In a fast-paced world, processed foods have become integral to our daily lives due to their convenience and accessibility. However, while they may satisfy our taste buds and save us time, the impact of processed foods on our mental health is often underestimated.

In this blog, we will explore seven harmful effects of processed food on mental health to help you make informed choices.

1. Mood Swings and Irritability

Processed foods, particularly those high in processed sugar, can lead to rapid spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels. Mood swings and irritability often accompany these fluctuations. [1]

The initial sugar rush might provide a temporary mood boost, but it is quickly followed by a crash, leaving you feeling low and irritable. Consistent consumption of processed sugar can exacerbate these mood swings, contributing to chronic irritability.

2. Processed Food and Risk of Depression

One of the most concerning effects of processed food on mental health is the increased risk of depression. Studies have linked diets rich in ultra-processed foods to a higher likelihood of developing depression. [2]

The additives, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners found in these products may disrupt the delicate balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, potentially contributing to the onset or exacerbation of depressive symptoms.

3. Anxiety and Panic Disorders

Highly processed foods often contain unhealthy fats and artificial additives, both of which can have detrimental effects on mental health. Trans fats, commonly found in processed snacks and fried foods, have been associated with an increased risk of anxiety and panic disorders.

Additionally, certain food additives, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), can trigger anxiety-like symptoms in sensitive individuals. [3]

4. Processed Food and Cognitive Decline

A diet dominated by processed foods lacks essential nutrients crucial for cognitive function. Nutrient deficiencies, particularly in omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins, have been linked to cognitive decline and an increased risk of conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. [4]

Consuming nutrient-poor processed foods may impair memory, concentration, and overall cognitive function.

5. Stress Levels

Stress and diet are closely intertwined. People often turn to comfort foods, many of which are processed, during times of stress.

While these foods may provide momentary relief, they are also processed carbs that can exacerbate stress in the long run. Cakes, chocolates, desserts, chips, cola, etc., are some examples of processed foods consumed almost daily by most people.

Processed foods are high in processed sugar, activating the body’s stress response. Moreover, the lack of essential nutrients in processed diets can make it harder for the body to manage stress effectively. [5]

6. Processed Food May Cause ADHD in Children

Processed foods, particularly those with artificial colorings and preservatives, have been implicated in the development and worsening of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. [6]

These additives may disrupt neurotransmitter function and exacerbate hyperactivity and impulsivity, making dietary changes an important consideration in managing ADHD symptoms.

7. Poor Gut Health

Emerging research has highlighted the gut-brain connection, demonstrating that gut health is crucial to mental well-being. Diets rich in processed foods, particularly those high in ultra-processed foods, can negatively impact the gut microbiome. [7]

An imbalanced microbiome has been linked to mood disorders and conditions like anxiety and depression. Processed foods devoid of fiber and beneficial nutrients can harm the gut, potentially affecting your mental health.


While processed food may offer convenience and immediate gratification, their impact on mental health is profound and often detrimental.

From mood swings and irritability to an increased risk of depression and anxiety disorders, processed foods can take a toll on our psychological well-being.

Additionally, cognitive decline, increased stress levels, and the potential worsening of conditions like ADHD in children are further reasons to reconsider our dietary choices. Understanding the connection between processed food and mental health is the first step towards making healthier decisions.

By prioritizing whole, nutrient-rich foods and reducing the consumption of processed items, we can nurture our minds and bodies, promoting long-term mental well-being.

In a world where processed foods are everywhere, it’s essential to remember that the old saying, “You are what you eat,” extends beyond the physical, profoundly influencing our mental health.


  1. Mesas, Arthur Eumann, et al. “Increased Consumption of Ultra-Processed Food Is Associated with Poor Mental Health in a Nationally Representative Sample of Adolescent Students in Brazil.” Nutrients 14.24 (2022): 5207.
  2. Zheng, Liwen, et al. “Ultra-processed food is positively associated with depressive symptoms among United States adults.” Frontiers in nutrition 7 (2020): 600449.
  3. Coletro, Hillary Nascimento, et al. “Ultra-processed and fresh food consumption and symptoms of anxiety and depression during the COVID–19 pandemic: COVID Inconfidentes.” Clinical nutrition ESPEN 47 (2022): 206-214.
  4. Weinstein, Galit, et al. “Consumption of ultra-processed food and cognitive decline among older adults with type-2 diabetes.” The Journals of Gerontology: Series A 78.1 (2023): 134-142.
  5. Lopes Cortes, M.; Andrade Louzado, J.; Galvão Oliveira, M.; Moraes Bezerra, V.; Mistro, S.; Souto Medeiros, D.; Arruda Soares, D.; Oliveira Silva, K.; Nicolaevna Kochergin, C.; Honorato dos Santos de Carvalho, V.C.; et al. Unhealthy Food and Psychological Stress: The Association between Ultra-Processed Food Consumption and Perceived Stress in Working-Class Young Adults. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2021, 18, 3863. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18083863
  6. Yan, Shuangqin, et al. “Dietary patterns are associated with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms among preschoolers in mainland China.” European journal of clinical nutrition 72.11 (2018): 1517-1523.
  7. Elizabeth, Leonie, et al. “Ultra-processed foods and health outcomes: a narrative review.” Nutrients 12.7 (2020): 1955.

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