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New research finds that eating fried foods can increase your risk of depression and anxiety. Westend61/Getty Images
  • A new study has found a correlation between frequent consumption of fried foods and higher instances of anxiety and depression.
  • The study concluded that regular consumption of fried foods, particularly fried potatoes, carries a 12% and 7% higher risk of anxiety and depression respectively.
  • Experts say this is for several reasons, including gut disruption, an increase in inflammation, and lipid metabolism disruption.
  • To reduce your intake of fried foods, you can try boiling, poaching, or grilling your foods instead.

You’ve likely heard the phrase “You are what you eat.” And perhaps, as the phrase suggests, you’ve noticed that you feel bloated, sluggish, and fatigued when you aren’t eating well.

New research suggests that what we eat may not only affect us physically but mentally too. More specifically, a new study conducted at the St. Louis School of Medicine at Washington University has linked a diet high in the consumption of fried foods – especially fried potatoes – with increased instances of anxiety and depression.

The study involved 140,728 people and revealed that regular consumption of fried foods carries a 12% and 7% higher risk of anxiety and depression, respectively.

The researchers conclude that frequent fried food consumption is “strongly associated” with a higher risk of anxiety and depression due to a contaminant in fried foods known as acrylamide.

This contaminant was shown to trigger neuroinflammation and lipid metabolism disturbance, which can affect mental health.

While these findings may be disappointing to lovers of fried foods, they also offer a silver lining. By paying closer attention to what we eat, we may be able to help reduce our risk of some mood disorders.

“The connection between food and mood is far more complex than is sometimes reported. However, there are certainly dietary patterns that appear to be protective,” says Rohini Bajekal, a nutritionist and a board-certified lifestyle medicine professional at Plant Based Health Professionals.

“The results of this study are in line with what we would expect to see and are further confirmation of decades of research showing that fried and unhealthy foods in the standard Western diet increase the risk of common chronic diseases and mental health conditions,” Rohini explains.

One of the reasons that fried foods are associated with higher instances of anxiety and depression is that they cause inflammation in the body which is correlated with anxious and depressive symptoms.

Megan Hilbert, a registered dietitian at Top Nutrition Coaching, cites a 2017 study called the SMILES Trial that notes that mental health outcomes were greatly improved when a control group followed a diet high in anti-inflammatory foods for 12 weeks.

“A diet high in fried foods contributes to neuroinflammation, or inflammation in the brain, since fried foods produce compounds known as advanced glycation end productions which adhere to tissue, damage them, and cause inflammation,” Hilbert says.

Hilbert notes that research is still being done on this topic, but, she says, it’s hypothesized that inflammation may decrease the release of dopamine and also blunt the areas of the brain that are associated with reward.

In addition, fried foods are typically lacking in fiber, phytonutrients, and healthy fats which are shown to positively impact brain health. In turn, this can have an impact on your gut.

“A lack of these compounds can cause a breakdown in how the gut and the brain communicate with each other,” Hilbert says. “Upwards of 90 to 95% of our serotonin is made in the gut, and so it’s hypothesized that imbalances in our gut microbiota influence the production of these neurotransmitters, which in turn, impacts our mood negatively.”

According to the study authors, acrylamide may be the main chemical that is doing the damage when it comes to mental health.

“Acrylamide is a chemical that can naturally form in certain starchy foods when roasted, fried, or baked at high temperatures,” Hilbert explains. “Studies have shown that acrylamide is carcinogenic in animals and may be carcinogenic to humans.”

However, Hilbert says it’s important to note that in animal studies, concentrations of acrylamide used were at very high doses.

“We currently don’t have solid evidence that acrylamide poses this same threat to humans even after 20 years of research into the topic,” she says.

Then there’s lipid metabolism, the process by which fats are broken down and stored as energy. The authors of the study say high consumption of fried foods disrupts this process.

“The lipid composition in the brain has been recognized as something that plays a role in neuron function, and these neurons play an important role in how the brain communicates,” Hilbert explains. “When this communication is disturbed we can see functional behavior adaptations like anxiety and/or depression.”

The relationship between frequent fried food consumption and mental health is certainly complicated and complex. But one thing is clear: Reducing your intake of fried foods is a wise and healthy choice.

So what healthy swaps should you be making?

The first approach you should try is changing your method of cooking. “Choose cooking methods like poaching, stewing, steaming, and boiling rather than dry, high-temperature cooking,” Bajekal suggests. “Oven-frying or air-frying can be great options as well because you use far less oil.”

Another tip is to be wary of using certain cooking oils.

“Tropical oils (such as coconut oil and palm oil) are high in saturated fats and it’s better to replace these with extra-virgin olive oil, avocado oil, or rapeseed oil,” says Bajekal.

As for what to eat, Hilbert recommends swapping fried items with baked or grilled products (like baked potatoes and grilled chicken) and adding in more whole foods like nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

“Even spices can positively impact the gut microbiota, reduce inflammation, and improve mitochondrial function,” she notes.

If in doubt, Bajekal says to use the six pillars of a healthy lifestyle as a rule of thumb:

  1. Eating a variety of whole plant foods with plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds
  2. Engaging in regular movement
  3. Managing stress
  4. Getting restful, quality sleep
  5. Avoiding risky substances such as tobacco and alcohol
  6. Prioritizing relationships

However you decide to reduce your consumption of fried foods, both experts agree that a slow, steady, and sustainable approach is best.

“If you regularly consume fried food, keep it simple and find one goal you can tackle first. Maybe that’s swapping out fries when you go out to eat for another side you enjoy, or switching from a fried chicken sandwich to a grilled one,” says Hilbert.

“It’s also really important to create an environment where you’re not as tempted to eat fried foods,” she adds.

“Willpower is a muscle that can only go so far, so decreasing how often you eat out and surrounding yourself with other people who are also looking to change their habits is an important step to lasting change.”

Fried foods are tasty, comforting, and likely to provide a few moments of pleasure. However, if you consume them too frequently, you might find your good mood is short-lived.