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How to moderate diet of ultra-processed food amid mental health links – Metro.co.uk

5 minutes, 23 seconds Read
Consuming lots of ultra-processed foods, like ready meals, increases the risk of developing anxiety (Picture: Getty Images)

Our brains are heavily entwined with our guts. That’s why meditation can help with gut health, and eating more gut-friendly foods can help with anxiety

Now, a new study conducted by researchers in Australia has found that eating a lot of ultra-processed foods (also known as UPFs), such as ready meals, sugary cereals and fizzy drinks, has been linked to poor mental health, as well as an increased risk of dying from heart problems. 

In fact, the study found that a higher UPF intake was associated with a 48-53% greater risk of developing anxiety. But why?

‘We know that the brain relies on a number of nutrients, so it’s hardly surprising that food impacts mental wellbeing and mood,’ Dr Frankie Phillips, a registered dietitian with the British Dietetic Association, tells Metro.co.uk.

The brain, she explains, is fuelled by glucose, so ‘steady blood sugar’ levels are essential for fuelling the brain. 

Beyond that, though, she notes that the consumption of omega 3 fats and a healthy gut microbiome have also been linked to brain health. 



What are UFPs?

‘UPFs are foods that have undergone significant processing and modification from their original state,’ explains Dr Frankie. 

‘Some definitions suggest that UPFs usually contain ingredients that aren’t found in a typical kitchen e.g. artificial colours, preservatives, artificial flavours, and emulsifiers.

Processing isn’t all bad 

It’s important not to villainise processed foods completely. 

As Dr Frankie explains: ‘Processing isn’t all bad, and sometimes it can even help as some nutrients are more easily available to the body when they are processed to some degree.

‘For example, canned tomatoes or tomato puree has more bioavailable antioxidants than a fresh tomato, and life is simply too busy to make everything from scratch all the time.’

Do UPFs need to go?

It’s important to note that, as Dr Frankie points out, UPFs aren’t necessarily harmful to mental health. 

The issue is that, by eating them — especially in high amounts — it’s likely that you are displacing other foods which have a positive impact on the brain, starving it of all that juicy, nutritional goodness. 



Brain foods

Both omega 3 fats and gut-healthy foods are vital for brain health.

For the former, Dr Frankie recommends eating oily fish, walnuts and spinach.

For the latter, you’ll want to get in a variety of fibre-rich plant foods: think fruit and vegetables, nuts, pulses, beans and wholegrains.

So, do you need to give up UPFs if you want better mental health? 

Well, if you find that you feel better the less UPFs you eat, it’s probably a good idea to listen to what your body is telling you. That said, it’s about finding the balance. 

‘We all need to enjoy what we eat, and a diet devoid of UPFs would cut out many of the foods we associate with treats – think birthday cakes, chocolate biscuits and takeaways,’ says Dr Frankie. 

‘Having these occasionally is fine and, as a dietitian, I’d suggest having UPFs in moderation can be useful at times when life gets just too busy. 

‘But moderation is the key word.’

Pizza box

For many of us, UPFs are about convenience (Picture: Getty Images)

How to eat for your brain

It’s easy to say you’re going to cut out all processed foods and eat a macrobiotic diet in a bid to improve your mental health, but you know and we know that’s one big fantasy (and, honestly, probably a form of self-sabotage serving to make you even more anxious in the long run). 

This is especially true if your mental health is already low, and not to mention if your busy, running a house of five and rely on UPFs for convenience. 

Here’s some easy methods to cut down on the UPFs and get more brain-friendly food into your diet. 

Start small

When it comes to making big changes to your diet, Dr Frankie recommends starting small. 

‘Just one swap a week will be a start,’ she says. 

‘This might mean buying some things ready for sandwiches or wraps made at home – they can be far cheaper than buying lunch at a shop or takeaway. 

‘My favourite is a wrap spread with hummus and grated carrot with some mixed seeds sprinkled inside — plenty of gut-friendly fibre, and omega 3 in the seeds, all supporting brain nutrition at a low cost.’

Also, make sure to drink enough water!

woman makes sushi

Switching just one ultra-processed meal for a homemade dinner can make a huge difference (Picture: Getty Images)

Preparation is key

On that note, preparation is key. If you work outside your home, Dr Frankie recommends making sure you take a packed lunch and snacks out with you, so you don’t end up buying UPFs from the shop. 

‘Also having a regular meal plan with healthy snacks ready for times when you feel hungry can help manage steady blood sugar levels,’ she adds. 

Cook in batch

If you’re short on time, energy or motivation, cooking a decent, brain-friendly meal in batch can be a great solution. 

‘Batch cooking means you’ll have food ready to go in the freezer for those days when it’s just too hectic to cook,’ says Dr Frankie.

‘Make a batch of chilli or Bolognese and dial up the fibre whilst dialling down the cost by adding a couple of handfuls of red lentils or canned beans.’

Supplement your UPFs

Finally, says Dr Frankie, ‘if you’re still struggling and eating UPFs such as ready meals, try to boost the nutrient content by having a portion or two of veg on the side.

‘Frozen peas or a can of sweetcorn take just a couple of minutes and can go in the microwave alongside the ready meal too.’

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