Can Fast Food Make You Depressed?
We know that fast food is bad for our physical health, but research is showing that fast food may contribute to poor overall mental health, too.
Researchers from San Diego State University Research Foundation, publishing in the Journal of Health Psychology this month, say there may be a link between junk food, and in particular trans fats, and an inability to regulate our moods properly, particularly for people who consume high amounts of the foods.
The researchers used existing data to look at 5000 people (1699 men and 3293 women), their intake of foods containing trans fats, and the respondents’ responses to questions about their emotional states.
As a general pattern, the scientists found that the higher the trans fat intake was, the more likely people were to report negative or depressed emotional states. Conversely, the less the trans fat intake the more likely people were to report a positive mood and better overall emotional regulation.
This isn’t the first time that research has suggested a link between eating junk food and a decreased ability to properly regulate our emotions, with a number of studies looking at mood problems and how they might link with our diets seeming to show that depression and high junk food intake often go hand in hand.
One reason for a junk food-depression link might be the health problems it causes our bodies. It’s important to know that this avenue of research is still ongoing, but scientists have found that people who are depressed tend to have a flood of what is known as cytokines in their bodies, which is the body’s reaction to disease. They may be unaware of any physical health problems but may simply have lower moods. A junk-food heavy diet might create the underlying health problems that cause the release of cytokines and therefore set the body up for depression and mood regulation problems. The BBC has an in-depth discussion of this topic here.
The Guardian also has a good overview of research that has shown that people who regularly consume large amounts of junk food tend to have a lower threshold for dealing with anger, suggesting a broader problem with mood regulation and how it can be disturbed by what we eat.
As you might already have guessed though, proving this is as a causal link is difficult and scientists have been quick to point out that while for trained professionals depression isn’t hard to diagnose, for the general public recognizing this illness can be a problem. People with difficulties regulating their emotions may therefore go undiagnosed (because they’ve never sought help) and may be more prone to eat junk food simply because it provides them comfort (and sets off the reward centers of the brain) that may, however briefly, alleviate their poor moods.
Yet, even if that is true there are still good reasons to support measures like the FDA’s stance against trans fats, and they go beyond just our physical health. For instance we know that trans fats contribute to abdominal obesity and also cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In turn, we know that chronic obesity as well as other long-term health conditions can negatively affect our moods and, for some people who perhaps may already be vulnerable to depression and other mood disorders, can go hand in hand with serious mental health problems, too.
The research may not yet be strong enough to really hone in on whether junk food is causing mental health problems, and we shouldn’t attempt to rush science or make sketchy conclusions when the evidence isn’t yet compelling, but there is plenty of evidence to show the negative effects of trans fats and junk food as whole, and their link to an overall poor state of both physical and mental health.
That alone is probably reason enough to stay clear of overindulging in foods we know aren’t good for us.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.