We know that what we eat has a profound impact on how we feel, and according to a study published earlier this year, this food-mood effect is happening in real time.
The study investigated the correlation between fried food consumption and rates of anxiety and depression and identified one fried food in particular linked to symptoms.
Can you guess what it is?
Hold onto that thought.
In today’s newsletter, I’m sharing why overconsumption of fried food is strongly linked to poor mental health and the number one fried food flagged for this connection.
Ready? Let’s jump in!
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What’s the Fuss about Fried Food?
Many observational studies show a link between fried-food consumption and a greater risk for depression and anxiety, but none have uncovered why.
Cue the study’s findings!
Of 140,000 people with anxiety and depression, researchers found that those who ate one or more servings of fried food daily had a 12 percent higher risk of anxiety and a 7 percent higher risk of depression.
And the one fried food correlated with an increased risk of anxiety and depression?
Fried food and fried potato consumption were associated with a 7 percent higher risk of anxiety and a 5 percent higher risk of depression, respectively. And this association was most pronounced among males and younger individuals.
What Makes Fried Food So Hazardous to Our Health?
When a food is deep fried, a toxin called acrylamide is produced. Acrylamide is a byproduct of the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction formed between amino acids and sugar under high temperatures. Simply put, it’s the browning or charring of a food that forms that crisp outer layer.
The picture below represents the amount of acrylamide formed in various stages of the toasting process. As you can see, the more burnt or charred a food is, the more acrylamide it contains. When consumed in large quantities, acrylamide can cause oxidative stress that impacts many areas of the body, including the brain.
How Acrylamide Affects the Brain and Our Mental Health
To explore the link between acrylamide and depression and the possible mechanism of action, researchers of the same study conducted an experimental design using zebrafish.
After exposing zebrafish to high levels of acrylamide long-term, the researchers noted a significant uptick in anxiety-like behavior. The zebrafish preferred darker environments over lighter ones and were less exploratory and social than controls.
The authors elucidated the mechanism by which acrylamide induces this effect: exposure to acrylamide creates free radicals that damage our cell membranes and cause oxidative stress.
This oxidative stress disrupts the cell metabolism of our brains, in addition to other organs (it’s also made headlines for its potential link to cancer, but the research is not clear on this yet).
The result? Inflammation of the body and the brain, which we know is a root cause of poor mental health.
One important note: We have to acknowledge that zebrafish are not humans. And that the findings in this study can’t be exactly extrapolated to people. But that doesn’t mean researchers can’t learn more about the possible mechanisms involved and, hopefully, conduct future high-quality research on people to corroborate the findings.
- Minimize your consumption of deep-fried foods. Acrylamide levels are the highest in fried foods. French fries and potato chips, in particular, have the highest levels of acrylamide and therefore represent an area we need to be mindful of in order to minimize our exposure as much as possible.French fries from fast food chains and restaurants might pose an additional risk to our brain health, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy other versions or varieties of them every so often.We know that cooking your food at home is leaps and bounds better for you than eating out. If you or someone in your family is a french fry lover, try substituting with fingerling or sweet potatoes or making your own fries at home.Roasting or baking potatoes in the oven with coconut oil or olive oil produces less acrylamide than deep frying. Bonus! Soaking potatoes for 15–30 minutes beforehand also helps reduce acrylamide formation.Just remember to avoid overconsuming burnt or charred foods as best you can. Eating a little here and there is not going to kill you, so don’t freak out. But eating deep-fried or charred food every day could impact your mental health.
- Be mindful of acrylamide but don’t freak out. The relationship between acrylamide and poor health in humans is something that’s still being fleshed out. It is clear that high levels of acrylamide can induce cancer in lab rats, but those findings haven’t been replicated in people yet.However, there is enough cause for concern about the potential toxic impact of acrylamide on human beings that the NIH itself does recommend minimizing exposure following many of the same tips included in today’s newsletter.Why is this so important to understand? It’s because acrylamide is not just found in fried foods; it’s also found in healthy foods like coffee and dark chocolate products. But like many things in life, the dose makes poison, and minimal amounts of acrylamide seem to be something the body can handle. It’s the higher doses from deep-fried and ultra-processed foods that seem to be the issue.It’s okay to both be mindful of acrylamide and also not freak out over it—or the idea that you’re going to kill yourself by eating some fried foods occasionally.
I’m super grateful for conversations with individuals like Dr. Chris Palmer, a Harvard-trained Psychologist sounding the alarms on the link between eating the Standard American Diet and increased risk for mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and many others.
Dr. Palmer’s work explores the link between diet, metabolic dysfunction, and poor mental health, and this study of acrylamide in fried foods and depression was the perfect example of that.
If you’re interested in learning more about the impact of diet on our mental health, I highly recommend listening to our interview together for an introduction and picking up a copy of his book, Brain Energy.
Here’s to your health,