Junk Foods’ Link to Depression and Fatigue

We’ve all been tempted with a “pick me up” from the candy bowl or cookie jar from time to time, or a plate of French fries as comfort food. But are those foods making us feel better? Or are they actually pushing us down?

Research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that study participants who consumed the most sweet desserts, chocolates, high-fat dairy products such as cheese, and processed foods such as meats, fried foods, and refined cereals were more likely to be depressed than those who consumed a whole-food diet of fruits, vegetables, and fish.

Additional research in Scientific Reports confirmed that increasing consumption of higher-sugar foods over time actually played a part in causing depression, rather than just having an association. While the reasoning is not yet known, it could be due to increased inflammation, the addiction-like effects of sugar on the brain’s neurotransmitters, or the effects of sugar highs and lows.

You may recall experiences of a “sugar crash” or “food coma” after consumption (or overconsumption) of high-sugar and high-fat foods. More research is needed into the short-term effects. However, research into chronic fatigue syndrome, published in the Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics, found that the majority of sufferers consumed high intakes of unhealthy fats and low intakes of fiber, fruit, and vegetables.

Lastly, research published in Psychiatry Research, consisting mostly of small studies or case studies, found a link between increased anxiety and low-dietary diversity, high sugar, and refined carbohydrate consumption.

Reducing Risk for Depression

Replacing junk food with healthier options can decrease your risk for depression, and perhaps fatigue and anxiety as well. Starting with high-sugar choices, “Replace cakes and pies with homemade desserts based on fruits, such as roasted apples topped with cinnamon,” says Jenna Rosenfeld, a registered dietitian at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell. Also, “replace candy with unsweetened dark chocolate and refined sweetened cereals with oatmeal or homemade granola made with nuts and seeds (using only a small amount of honey or sweetener).”

Choosing higher-quality or lower‑fat foods also can help improve mood and energy. “Sauté or roast foods with olive oil, avocado oil, or grapeseed oil in place of frying,” says Rosenfeld. “Also, choose fatty fish such as tuna, sardines, and salmon, unprocessed chicken breasts or turkey in place of processed or red meats. And make lower-fat choices such as skim or plant-based milks in place of full-fat dairy products.”

Consuming brain-healthy foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, exercising regularly, and avoiding mood-altering substances such as alcohol and drugs can aid in your complete mental-health plan.


Other contributing factors to avoid:

Excessive alcohol intake. Alcohol, by definition, is a depressant. Some may find that it provides short-term relief from anxiety and stress. However, excessive or long-term use is linked with fatigue and depression. Hangovers have been linked with increased fatigue and anxiety.

Caffeine. In small doses, caffeine can act as a stimulant. However, it also inhibits serotonin in the brain and, over time, acts as a depressant. Due to its diuretic effects, caffeine increases dehydration, which is a known contributor to a depressed effect and fatigue, so stay hydrated with eight to 10 8-ounces glasses of fluid a day.

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