Can Fast Food Make You Depressed? A HealthCentral Explainer
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We all know that regularly consuming fast food is bad for our waistlines and physical health, but less known are the mental health hazards of that kind of diet. New research has emerged linking fast food to depression and bad moods.
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What’s the connection?
Researchers at the University of Las Palamas in Gran Canaria published a study which assessed the relationship between consuming fast food and processed sweets and the risk of developing clinical depression. They examined a group of 8,964 participants’ dietary habits over 6.2 years and collected data on a range of variables that may have influenced the relationship between their eating habits and depression. Such factors included age, sex, body mass index, smoking status, and exercise. Through the use of mail-in questionnaires, researchers tracked participants’ intakes of fast food and processed sweets, along with whether they had been diagnosed with clinical depression or had been prescribed antidepressants during the course of the study.
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What did they find?
The data revealed that participants with the highest consumption of fast food and processed sweets tended to be younger, single, less active, and had a 37 percent increased risk of developing depression compared to those with more healthy eating habits. Out of an overall 493 reported cases of clinical depression, 97 were reported among participants with the lowest consumption of fast food and 118 cases were reported in the group with highest fast food consumption. Therefore, the study concluded that as fast food consumption increases, so does the risk for depression.
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What does this mean?
While the study found an association between consuming high levels of fast food and depression, it can’t definitively show that eating these foods is a direct cause of depression. Other contributing factors which are potentially associated with depression can’t be ruled out, such as genetics or the fact that most participants who consumed high levels of fast food tended to be less active. Scientists did, however, screen participants to ensure that none of them had any underlying illnesses or conditions that could influence diet or risk of depression, such as cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure.
Are there other mental health risks?
Fast food originally was created to increase efficiency and to provide consumers with instant gratification, allowing them to eat on the go and have more time for other pursuits. Researchers at the Rotman School of Management decided to examine how fast food affects our behavior and demeanor and found that simply being exposed to fast food and related items--such as logos or images--triggered impatience. Through a series of fast food exposure tests, scientists were able to conclude that people exposed to fast food logos through a series of computer images exhibited a loss of patience, manifested in multiple ways. First, when they offered participants a choice between a small sum of immediate cash or a much larger payment later, they tended to choose the instant gratification of the smaller payment. Subjects also expressed a preference for timesaving products such as two-in-one shampoo, and exhibited a general sense of haste and impatience.
How does this relate to the content of fast food?
While these studies leave room for argument as to the actual cause of clinical depression and mood alterations, many common ingredients in fast food (including unhealthy fats, coloring, refined carbohydrates, and preservatives) can keep your brain from functioning at optimum capacity. Anxiety is linked to a lack of omega-3 fatty acids which are excluded from almost all fast food. Additionally, the high-refined carbs that are found in fast foods such as French fries can lead to blood sugar fluctuations, which in turn can cause anxiety, confusion, and fatigue. Along with the elevated risk of anxiety and depression, eating a diet high in artificial coloring and preservatives can lead to hyperactivity or “sugar rush,” inducing restlessness and irritability.
What’s the bottom line?
Following a diet heavy on fast food is not a good for either your physical or mental health. Whether or not your brain is wired to experience mental illness, fast food and unhealthy sweets are best avoided, as they could help trigger a chemical imbalance in your brain. Understandably, tough economic times and a tight schedule can lead anyone to look for the nearest drive-thru. But think carefully about what you choose to consume; eating fast food today can lead to impatience, anxiety, and depression down the road.
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If you find yourself in a fast food restaurant and are at a loss for what to order, here are some suggestions:
- If it’s a burger you are after, try the veggie burger from Burger King or ask your preferred chain if they offer something similar. You can also order the burger without the bun to avoid the added calories and refined carbs.
- If you are craving fries, try a baked potato from Wendy’s, apple dippers from McDonalds, or some baked potato chips.
- Ditch the carbonated and sugary beverage and replace with some unsweetened iced tea or water.
- If you want chicken, opt for grilled instead of crispy or fried.
- Salads are always the best option, but be wary of croutons and cheese. Request low fat dressing and avoid using the whole packet if possible. And if the salad comes with chicken, either ask to have them leave it out or at least make sure it’s grilled.
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
Furness, Hannah. Fast food ‘gives you the blues.’ Retieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/9180049/Fast-food-gives-you-the-blues-study-finds.html
Ken McGuffin. (2010, March 26). "Exposure To Fast Food Influences Our Everyday Psychology And Behavior." Medical News Today. Retrieved from