Evidence suggests a link between high consumption of very processed foods, like ultra-processed frozen meals, and adverse effects on mental health. Diets rich in additives, preservatives, and refined sugars might contribute to inflammation and oxidative stress, which in turn may affect mood and cognitive function (per Harvard Health Publishing). Specifically, these foods may disrupt the balance of the gut microbiota and influence the gut-brain axis, which plays a crucial role in regulating mood and cognition.
Explains Nathan Price, PhD, a chief scientific officer for Thorne HealthTech, to Real Simple, “Think of the gut-brain axis like a communication highway that connects the two together. For example, we now know that microbes in the gut make and modulate a variety of key brain neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, glutamate, GABA, and serotonin.” The regulation of these neurotransmitters can contribute to your emotional wellbeing, helping you stay calm, focused, and even-keeled.
Poor gut health may also contribute to increased inflammation, which can also affect mental health. Researcher Melissa Lane, of the Food & Mood Centre at Australia’s Deakin University, says to The New York Times, “Interactions between increased inflammation and the brain are thought to drive the development of depression.” Dr. Frank Hu, a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health professor of nutrition and epidemiology, told the publication that it works both ways. “When you get stressed, anxious or depressed, you tend to eat more unhealthy foods, in particular ultraprocessed foods that are high in sugar, fat and chemical additives.”