Food and Behaviour Research

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Consumption of Ultra Processed Food and Mental Wellbeing Outcomes

Sapien Labs

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Higher self-reported frequency of UPF consumption linked with poorer mental health and wellbeing


A global survey of almost 300,000 adults from 26 countries found higher self-reported consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPF) strongly linked with poorer self-reports of mental health and wellbeing.

Among the key findings:

  • Almost 3 times as many people who reported consuming ultra-processed food 'several times a day' were 'distressed' or 'struggling' with their mental wellbeing, compared to those who said they 'rarely or never' consumed it (53% vs 18%)
  • High UPF consumption was linked with all aspects of self-reported mental wellbeing, including resilience to stress, adaptability to change, and cognitive problems - although the associations were strongest for mood-related symptoms such as depression and emotional instability. 

While UPF consumption was higher in younger adults, the association with poor mental wellbeing was consistent across all age groups, as well as for all levels of self-reported exercise frequency, and income.

As these data are correlational, they can't provide direct evidence of cause-and-effect.  However, the findings are consistent with a huge and ever-growing body of other evidence linking high intakes of UPF with both physical and mental health problems.

Furthermore, some randomised controlled trials - a study design which can provide evidence of causal effects - have shown that high UPF consumption for as little as 2 weeks can increase both appetite and weight gain, and have negative effects on memory. See:

A recent detailed review also highlighted various key features of UPF, identifying many possible mechanisms by which these could negatively affect brain development and function, as well as physical health. See:

The full report of findings from this international survey is freely available from the website of the authors, Sapien Labs (a US not-for-profit organisation dedicated to investigating how envirornmental factors can contribute to individual differences in brain function). See:

02 Oct 2023 - Sapien Labs

There has been increasing attention on ultra-processed food (UPF) as the cause various of diseases, particularly in countries such as the United States and United Kingdom, where the majority of calories consumed today come from UPF.

While much of the focus has been on obesity, diabetes, and more recently, heart disease, the mind too is not exempt from its effects. Studies showing a link between UPF consumption and depression are growing. This includes a recent study that demonstrates an improvement of depression symptoms, even with just three weeks of diet change in those who regularly consume a diet of UPF placing UPF consumption as a core cause.

But just how far reaching are the effects of UPF on mental health? Here we look at the self-reported frequency of UPF consumption and its relationship to the full breadth of mental health symptoms, and aggregate mental wellbeing, in a global sample of almost 300,000 people.

Key Findings:

  • Mental wellbeing decreases sharply with more frequent UPF consumption. Those who consume UPF several times a day are three times more likely to have serious mental health struggles compared to those who rarely or never do.
  • While younger adults consume UPF more frequently, UPF consumption has a similar impact on all age groups.
  • The decline in mental wellbeing with increased frequency of UPF consumption cannot be attributed to indirect effects of exercise frequency or income.
  • Higher frequency of UPF consumption impacts all dimensions of mental function from Adaptability & resilience to Cognition.
  • Depression symptoms and problems with cognitive and emotional control dominate with higher frequency of UPF consumption.
  • Among 26 countries compared, respondents in the Philippines, United States and United Kingdom reported the highest consumption of UPF, while those in Egypt, Morocco and Venezuela reported the lowest.

Cite this report as:

  • Sapien Labs, Consumption of ultra-processed food and mental wellbeing outcomes, October 2023.

This study uses global data from 292,786 respondents aged 18 to 75+ obtained between January and August 2023 through the Global Mind Project. It acquires data using the MHQ assessment that spans 47 elements covering a wide range of symptoms and mental capabilities and provides aggregate scores of mental wellbeing and its dimensions. This report examines the relationship between people’s consumption of UPF and their mental wellbeing.