Does Eating Fried Foods Really Put Us at Risk for Depression and Anxiety?
A recent study found a link between french fries and mental health, but experts say singling out ‘bad’ foods may do more harm than good.
Can eating french fries put you at risk for depression? A recent study found a connection between regularly eating fried foods (especially potatoes) and depression and anxiety — but some health experts think it would be premature to “hold the fries” based on these findings alone.
The research, published on April 23 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), found that eating a lot of fried foods was strongly associated with a greater likelihood of depression and anxiety, especially in men and younger people.
Western dietary patterns have been unfavorably linked with poor mental health, according to the authors. These findings “highlight the significance of reducing fried food consumption for mental health,” they wrote.
The study — and some of the news headlines about the mental health risks of fries — have been met with skepticism from members of the healthcare community.
French Fries Don’t Land People in the Hospital for Depression
“I’ve worked in a hospital setting for over a decade helping people who experience severe depression. French fries don’t land people in hospital,” tweeted psychologist Jonathan N. Stea, PhD, in response to headlines about the study.
“Also recognizing that association does not equal causality. It may be depressed people are more likely to eat french fries as a comfort food,” responded Joel Shulkin, MD, a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, in a later tweet.
What Connection Did the Study Actually Find?
To investigate how regularly eating fried foods might impact depression and anxiety, the authors used data on over 140,000 people from a biobank and followed them for an average of 11 years.
Frequent fried food consumption, “especially fried potato consumption,” was associated with a 12 percent higher risk of anxiety and a 7 percent higher risk of depression.
The authors of the paper singled out acrylamide — a byproduct produced in starchy foods when they are fried, baked, roasted, or otherwise cooked at high temperatures — as a potential cause for the mental health changes.
Acrylamide is a chemical used to produce paper, textiles, cosmetics, plastics, and in treating water and wastewater. Because the compound can form naturally in foods when they’re cooked at high temperatures, greater levels of acrylamide can be found in not only french fries and potato chips, but also breakfast cereals, cookies, toast, and even coffee, according to the American Cancer Society.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies acrylamide as a “probable human carcinogen.”
The authors then studied zebrafish, a common animal model in research because of their genetic similarities to humans, per the National Institutes of Health. Zebrafish who were exposed to acrylamide for 180 days were less social and showed “anxiety- and depressive-like behaviors,” the authors wrote, though they acknowledged fish activity can’t be directly compared with human anxiety and depression.
“Even with such a large sample size, it’s hard to tease out the impact of different behaviors, like eating fried food,” says Leah Groppo, RD, a clinical dietitian and diabetes educator at Stanford Health Care in Palo Alto, California, who was not involved in the research. There are many variables in our everyday life that could impact mental health, even if the authors tried to control for many factors, she says.
“I’m suspect of someone that says, ‘Aha, I’ve found the culprit that’s increasing depression, [so] we should all avoid it.’ Because our mental health depends on so many things,” says Groppo. “And anytime when you are using an animal model, we have to be careful about what we extrapolate from that,” she adds.
Deeming Certain Foods ‘Bad’ Can Trigger Shame or Food Guilt
“I don’t think that studies like this are necessarily helpful to the population. It can add more confusion to messaging about how to be healthy in general,” says Groppo.
If you’re running around and don’t have time to plan and you grab a cheeseburger and french fries for yourself or your kids, it shouldn’t send you into a doom spiral, she says. “You might need or want to eat these kinds of foods sometimes. I don’t think it’s helpful to vilify them,” says Groppo.
It can be damaging to deem certain foods bad or unhealthy and judge ourselves or others for eating them, she says. “That never helps to create healthy changes and it probably doesn’t help our mental health either. We need mental bandwidth to make healthy changes, and if you’re spending all this brain time on feeling bad about eating something like french fries, you can lose that.”
How we eat is just one of many things that may impact our mood, says Groppo. “Overall, when we eat foods that are higher in fiber — fruits, veggies, plant-based — these things nourish our body and help our body function the way that it wants to,” she says.
A randomized controlled trial published in May 2019 in PLoS One found that symptoms of depression dropped significantly among a group of young adults after they followed a Mediterranean-style pattern of eating for three weeks.
Compared with the group that didn’t change their diet, those that ate more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats found in the Med-style diet saw their score on a depression scale fall from moderate to normal range, and they reported lower levels of anxiety and stress, according to researchers.
Focus on a Healthy Eating Pattern and Realistic Goals
The new dietary guidelines from the American Heart Association (AHA) emphasize dietary patterns as opposed to individual foods or nutrients. Demonizing certain foods or food groups isn’t helpful, said Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, chair of the writing group for the AHA statement and senior scientist and director of the cardiovascular nutrition team at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston, in a previous interview.
“Stop thinking of foods in terms of good or bad. If you love a food, it’s okay to enjoy it. Just don’t eat it frequently or in large portions,” said Dr. Lichtenstein.
If you want to change your eating pattern, Groppo suggests setting small, realistic goals. “For example, if you’re not eating any fruit at all, add one piece of fruit five days a week. If you want to eat more vegetables, try to work them into a meal a couple days a week,” she says.
Even if you don’t notice a change on the scale, there will be health benefits to these small changes in the long run, says Groppo.