Food and Your Mood: How Food Affects Mental Health

By: Jen McWaters, Psy.D. | January 19, 2024

The prevalence of mental health conditions is on the rise, and as a society it is crucial that we seriously examine and address the factors that contribute to these issues, both for ourselves and for younger generations. One area that deserves attention is our typical Western modern diet, specifically the over-consumption of ultra-processed food. In this blog article, we will delve into the impact of ultra-processed food on mental health, backed by recent scientific data and research.

What is Ultra-Processed Food?

Ultra-processed food refers to products that undergo multiple industrial processes, often containing additives, preservatives, seed oils, and artificial ingredients. These foods are typically high in added sugars, unhealthy fats, and refined carbohydrates while lacking essential nutrients. Examples include pre-packaged snacks, store-bought baked goods, fast food, soda, sugary beverages, and convenience meals.

The Link Between Ultra-Processed Food and Mental Health

Recent scientific studies shed light on the connection between ultra-processed food consumption and mental health disorders. While research in this area is still evolving, several significant findings deserve our attention:

Depression and Anxiety

A study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition (Rahe et al., 2020) analyzed data from over 100,000 participants and found a positive association between the consumption of ultra-processed food and the risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders. The study highlighted the need for a nutrient-rich diet as a protective factor against mental health conditions.

Inflammation and Mood Disorders

Mounting evidence suggests that the consumption of ultra-processed food triggers chronic low-grade inflammation in the body. In turn, this inflammation is linked to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety (Lassale et al., 2020). A review published in the journal Nutrients emphasized the importance of an anti-inflammatory diet for preserving mental well-being.

Impaired Cognitive Function

Several studies exploring the impact of ultra-processed food on cognitive function found alarming results. A study conducted at the University of Bordeaux in France (Bénard et al., 2019) observed that higher consumption of ultra-processed food is associated with lower cognitive performance, including memory, attention, and executive function.

Why This Matters

I emphasize to my clients the crucial role that sleep quality, dietary choices, and exercise routines play in their psychological and emotional well-being.

When you consume a diet of highly processed, inflammatory, and low-nutrient foods it negatively affects your progress in therapy.

When we reflect on our diet, we tend to underestimate the prevalence of processed foods and overestimate the inclusion of nutrient-dense food in our meals. If you find yourself uncertain about your eating habits, use a Food-Mood Diary to monitor your food choices and their correlation with your physical and emotional well-being. Share this information with your therapist who can help you evaluate the potential influence of your diet on your mental health. You and your therapist will work together to develop tools and identify resources to help you take the important first steps to Eating to Feel Good.

How to Reduce Ultra-Processed Foods

Now that we understand the detrimental effects of ultra-processed food on mental health, it’s important to take proactive steps to reduce their consumption. Here are some practical tips that you can use today to eat less processed foods:

1. Choose whole foods: Incorporate more whole, unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein, and healthy fats in your diet. These provide essential nutrients and support overall well-being.

2. Eat more protein: Protein and healthy fats help curb cravings for fast foods and unhealthy snacks.

3. Cook meals at home: When you prepare meals at home you have control over the ingredients used. Experiment with flavorful recipes and try batch cooking to save time.

4. Read food labels: Familiarize yourself with food labels and ingredients lists. Avoid products with long lists of artificial additives, preservatives, and high amounts of added sugars and seed oils.

5. Plan and prepare: Plan your meals ahead of time and make a grocery list accordingly. We can reduce temptations for ultra-processed convenience foods when we have healthy options readily available.

Next Steps

To be well on the inside and out it is essential to address the impact of ultra-processed food on mental health.

When you adopt a whole foods approach and reduce your reliance on ultra-processed options you prioritize your mental wellbeing, reduce stress and move From Burnout to Balance. Remember, small changes in dietary habits can yield substantial benefits for both the body and mind.

If you feel overwhelmed and uncertain about where to begin, your San Diego psychologist at Therapy Changes will provide a thorough assessment, offer support, and will guide you in the process. Contact us to learn more about How Therapy Can Help and What to Expect and to schedule an appointment with a talented member of our team.

Changing habits can be challenging, and the support of a professional San Diego psychologist can greatly improve your success in managing and sustaining positive change.



Rahe, C., Unwin, N., & Monteiro, C. A. (2020). Trajectories of ultra-processed food intake from childhood to adolescence and risk of depression and anxiety disorders in adulthood. Public Health Nutrition, 23(11), 2029-2038.
Lassale, C., Batty, G. D., Baghdadli, A., Jacka, F., Sánchez-Villegas, A., Kivimäki, M., … & Penninx, B. W. (2020). Healthy dietary indices and risk of depressive outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Molecular Psychiatry, 25(12), 2771-2787.
Bénard, M., Gressier, B., Arnaud, J., & Mura, T. (2019). Ultra-processed food consumption is associated with impaired cognitive function in healthy adults. BMJ Open, 9(6), e029601.


Note: This blog post is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.



Photo by Taylor Heery on Unsplash

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