7 Ways Junk Food Can Make Us Depressed, Angry, Overweight, and More
Food is critical to our life. It impacts physical health, as well as mental health and development.
Junk food contributes significantly to the obesity epidemic in the U.S. and globally.
Research shows that junk food, to put it bluntly, could also make us dumb.
In some cases, it makes people sad, angry, or even depressed.
Remember the commercials of the 1980s and 1990s that showed what our brains looked like while on drugs?
According to research, the same concept applies to our brains on junk food.
The Brain on Junk Food
The human brain has millions of neurons that operate 24/7, 365 days a year.
Our bodies need to consume healthy foods regularly to maintain the neurons at optimum levels for the duration of their life. Not only do neurons require healthy foods, but the tissue that supports them needs it too.
Listed below are seven ways junk food affects our brains, potentially damaging our cognitive abilities and neurological and mental health.
1. Junk Food May Impair Neurological Activity and Regulation
Junk food can impair neurons and perineuronal nets.
What are neurons?
According to the Queensland Brain Institute in Queensland, Australia, “neurons (also called neurones or nerve cells) are the fundamental units of the brain and nervous system, the cells responsible for receiving sensory input from the external world, for sending motor commands to our muscles, and for transforming and relaying the electrical signals at every step in between.”
Perineuronal nets are clusters of cells that surround and support neuronal cells. Researchers discovered that these nets help protect and regulate neuron activity. They also assist with spatial memory and “cognition – including encoding, maintaining, and updating memories (1).”
Medication, recreational drugs, nutrition (or lack of), and physical activity can influence perineuronal net structures (1a). Junk food damages the perineuronal nets by increasing inflammation and oxidative stress (2).
A healthy diet that includes anti-oxidative substances can reduce or prevent damage to these perineuronal cells and keep the brain healthy. On the contrary, a diet high in junk food can contribute to oxidative stress that damages the cells.
In addition, junk food and overly processed foods can impair cognition and memory and possibly lead to brain shrinkage (3). Scientists revealed that specific regions in our brain slowly begin shrinking once we hit our 40s as part of the aging process. However, years of consistently consuming junk food and sugary beverages can speed up that shrinkage, aging our brains much faster (3a).
Junk food also interferes with memory-making synapses. A diet high in unhealthy foods can slow the process of building new synapses and lead to poor memory and impaired cognition (4).
In 2016, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia referenced research that revealed people who regularly consumed excess amounts of junk food “did not perform as well” on basic memory tests compared to participants who consumed healthy foods.
A diet low in healthy fats like omega-3s and high in junk food reduces the generative powers of the neurons, reducing neurogenesis (i.e., the creation of neurons) (5).
People who eat vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, legumes, healthy fats, and so forth may have higher protection against cognitive impairment and memory issues. Foods rich in antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients provide nutrition to the brain and its supporting cells (6).
Article of Interest: Why You Should Eat Healthy Fat to Burn Fat and Lose Weight
2. Junk Food May Lower IQ and Impair Cognitive Abilities in Children
Junk food lacks the nutrients for healthy brain development in babies, children, and adolescents. When the developing brain does not receive enough nutrients for optimal growth, the potential result is impaired IQ.
One study suggests that children who consume junk food regularly may have slightly lower IQs than children who eat healthy food. This study also suggests that healthy food may slightly increase a child’s IQ (7).
Another study suggests that the dietary patterns of babies from 6 to 24 months old could, to some degree, affect their IQ at age 8 (8). Children who consume a lot of junk food may also be at an increased risk of developing cognitive disability and memory issues.
Similarly, people who consume too much junk food and processed foods may be more susceptible to dementia in their older years (9).
3. Junk Food Disrupts the Brain’s Reward System
The human brain has a reward and punishment system. Research shows that junk food stimulates the reward system. It makes the brain believe the person has done something great to receive the reward. The brain eventually grows accustomed to the rewarding stimuli effects of junk food (10). It could create a cycle where the person eats more junk food to stimulate the reward system.
Researchers from a 2017 study stated:
“Recent studies have highlighted the negative impact of these foods on brain function, resulting in cognitive impairments and altered reward processing. The increased neuroplasticity during adolescence may render the brain vulnerable to the negative effects of these foods on cognition and behavior.” (11)
Junk food provides a temporary high because of its effects on neurotransmitters that help regulate our moods. Dopamine is one of the feel-good hormones in the brain (12). Junk food promotes the release of this hormone as it is a component of the reward system.
Products high in added sugar give us a temporary high because it triggers serotonin. Serotonin is another neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood. It is known as the “happy hormone.”
Here’s the kicker: junk food companies know what chemicals to put in their foods to provide those temporary highs and make you addicted to them. They’ve spent millions of dollars researching the what’s and how’s to keep their consumers coming back for more. For example, a 2013 study showed that the added sugar chemical high fructose corn syrup was just as addictive as drugs.
When we strive to eat healthy foods most of the time, we feed the helpful bacteria in our gut. The beneficial bacteria can encourage healthy neurotransmitter production. Healthier neurotransmitter production could lead to longer-lasting positive emotional and mental outcomes, including better mood regulation.
4. Junk Food May Increase Impulsivity
The prefrontal cortex in the brain regulates social behavior, impulses, and decision-making skills. This cortex must be mature to be fully functional. Teenagers typically have lesser control over their actions and responses because their prefrontal cortex has not fully matured. Research shows that junk food negatively impacts the prefrontal cortex, delaying its maturation.
Therefore, consuming excessive amounts of junk food consistently can increase impulsivity, even into adulthood (13). This impulsivity can impair decision-making and reasoning abilities.
5. Junk Food May Increase Anxiety and Restlessness
Donuts, candy bars, cookies, cakes, and other highly refined carb foods contain higher amounts of sugar. A diet high in sugary foods and beverages leads to altered sugar levels in the blood that could cause anxiety and restlessness (14). It is one of the most unusual effects of junk food on physical and mental health.
While the results are mixed, several studies suggest a potential link between certain food dyes and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in some children (especially those with a sensitivity to food dyes) (15).
Red dye 40, a common food color additive, is potentially linked to food intolerances and behavioral conditions such as ADHD in children (16). It is in soda, some protein powders, energy and sports drinks, some dairy products, gelatins, candy, chewing gum, packaged snacks, condiments, and confections (17).
6. Junk Food May Increase Aggression and Promote Violent Behavior
It’s no secret that junk food is high in salt, added sugars, unhealthy fat, and other ingredients with hard-to-pronounce names. Some contain additives that may promote aggression. Researchers discovered a link between the ingredients in junk food and aggressive and violent behaviors.
Researchers from a 2013 study at the University of California revealed the effects of trans fats on the brain. They proposed that “greater trans fatty acids were significantly associated with greater aggression.” Trans fats have since been banned in the U.S.
Science.org reported on a 10-year study that analyzed the long-term effects of consuming sugar. The study revealed that children who ate junk food high in sugar on a daily basis were more likely to commit violent crimes when they became adults.
The India Times and That Sugar Movement reported on researchers who analyzed data gathered by the World Health Organization regarding the effects of sugar on children. The data came from hundreds of thousands of children aged 11 to 15 in 26 industrialized countries.
Researchers learned that regardless of different factors (e.g., country, household income, gender, etc.), sugar appeared to influence children’s behavior. They observed that the more sugar the children consumed (especially sugary beverages), the more likely they were to engage in violent or risky activities.
The researchers concluded:
Findings suggest that unhealthy nutrition such as the intake of large quantities of sugary drinks and sweets and chocolates could be seen as a “red flag” signaling potential involvement in multiple risk behaviors.
Even though the research suggested a link between sugar intake (especially sugary beverages) and the promotion of violent or risky behavior, some experts suggest more research is needed to “prove a direct cause and effect relationship” between the two.
Stephanie Small from StephanieSmallHealth.com highlighted several studies that showed an increase in aggressive and violent behavior in adolescents whose diets were high in junk food and sugary beverages (e.g., soda). She also referenced a study that showed violent behaviors dropping by 37 percent in one prison when inmates were given multivitamins and omega-3 supplements.
Additionally, omega-3 may help ease anti-social behavior in children.
SciTechDaily.com reported on research studies revealing how junk and overly processed foods have permeated into our lives. For some people, a significant portion of their daily food consumption comes from overly processed food.
Three published analyses from the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey and the 2018 U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey revealed these sobering statistics: in Canada, in 2004, 48 percent of the caloric intake across all ages came from ultra-processed products; in the United States 67 percent of what children aged two to 19 years consumed and 57 percent of what adults consumed in 2018 were ultra-processed products.
The professors who wrote this research article concluded:
The evidence is clear: a well-nourished population is better able to withstand stress. Hidden brain hunger is one modifiable factor contributing to emotional outbursts, aggression and even the loss of civility in public discourse.
Results from a 2019 poll show that 84 percent of Americans believe we are angrier now than a generation ago. We have also seen a dramatic increase in the consumption of junk food over the past few decades. Some question if there is a connection or if it’s just merely coincidental.
Junk and overly processed foods deprive our bodies and starve our brains of essential vitamins and minerals. They are low in nutritional value and high in empty calories. They lack the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids necessary for regulating mood. They may also rob the body of nutrients it already has, further lowering those nutrient levels.
For example, the chemicals in soda could block the absorption or bind to minerals like magnesium, calcium, and zinc, thus, lowering their levels in the body. These minerals have hundreds of functions, and regulating mood is one of them.
Crime Times reported on a study that identified hyperactivity as “a strong risk factor for criminality.” The study also linked hyperactivity to nutritional deficiencies and food intolerances (18). Recent studies, including experts, have also suggested that micronutrient deficiencies (e.g., vitamins, minerals, and omega-3s) may play a role in hyperactivity in teens and adolescents (18a).
Researchers who reviewed several studies regarding dietary patterns and violent behaviors suggested nutritional reform to tackle the harmful effects of junk food and food intolerance on the brain and body (19).
7. Junk Food May Increase Depression Risk
Diets high in unhealthy food can lead to many health problems, including obesity, gastrointestinal problems, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and inflammation (20). As we’ve learned, unhealthy food also takes a toll on mental health.
People who rely on junk food and overly processed food to meet their physical hunger needs may increase their depression risk. They may experience more depressive symptoms than people who do not consume junk food regularly (21).
Growing evidence suggests healthy, wholesome foods with micronutrients like omega-3, b-vitamins, amino acids, and minerals (e.g., zinc) may help combat depression (22).
Research studies conducted in Australia, Canada, Japan, and Spain revealed that those who consumed healthy foods witnessed “fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety” than those who consumed unhealthy foods (22a).
Participants in depression studies experienced “significant improvements” in their symptoms when they switched from eating unhealthy foods to a Mediterranean-style diet. A Mediterranean-style diet consists mainly of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes (e.g., beans), and healthy fats (e.g., high-quality olive oil, avocados, etc.) (22a).
Several studies, including a 2019 study published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition proposed that “poor mental health is linked with poor diet quality — regardless of personal characteristics such as gender age, education, age, marital status, and income level.”
Added sugar can induce stress through different mechanisms that increase inflammation in the brain and body. According to research, chronic inflammation is a key contributor to depression.
A diet heavy in added sugars also depletes the body of b-vitamins, including b1 (23). Studies have shown a correlation between B-vitamin deficiencies and some mental conditions.
For example, experts have suggested severe B12 and B9 (also known as methyl folate) deficiencies may contribute to bipolar disorder and manic depression. Additionally, a severe deficiency in B6, B8, B9, and B12 may be linked to schizophrenia (24).
The body needs an adequate supply of nutrients to support the thousands of activities that occur in the brain at any given moment. Unhealthy foods do not provide the vitamins, minerals, and other phytonutrients essential for healthy brain function.
The impact of junk food on the brain and mental health justifies the name given to “JUNK” food. Avoiding such food can be difficult because of our modern lifestyle; however, it is recommended to minimize consumption because of its effects on our physical and mental health.
I am sure you read all this and said to yourself, “okay, I get it. Junk food is bad for my brain, so I must avoid my favorite foods forever?!”
While health experts would like to say, “yes, you are correct,” they also understand that we are only human.
It is almost impossible to eliminate junk food from the diet for most people (myself included).
For this reason, many experts believe in the 80/20 approach. It is practical because it allows wiggle room for our favorite snacks and foods. The 80/20 concept requires the consumption of healthy foods 80 percent of the time while allowing for unhealthy consumption 20 percent of the time. In this way, we do not feel deprived.
Our goal should be to eat healthy, whole, minimally processed foods most of the time because they help fuel our bodies and brains!
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