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Junk food is battering our mental health

junk food

Modernity has brought us the steam engine, electricity and man on the moon, but it has also brought with it junk food. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life it is often tempting to reach for ‘fast food’ which can very easily translate into opting for ‘junk foods’.

What exactly is the nature of these ‘junk foods’, a pejorative dating back at least to the 1950s and currently demonised by the diet industry? They are generally considered foods that have low nutritional content; high in sugar or unhealthy fat with little fibre, protein or vitamins. This pattern tends to be found among processed foods; those that have been altered in some way during preparation such as savoury snacks, breakfast cereals and cheese though not all processed foods are a bad choice since some foods such as milk need processing to be safe. [1] Examples of junk foods particularly damaging to our mental health include high fat dairy products, pastries, cereals and cakes.

At Reset Your Health, we believe that demonization of certain food groups is a short-term solution and instead, a healthy microbiome (all the microorganisms residing on your skin and inside all the parts of your body, essential for the normal functioning of our bodies) requires a lifestyle change. Therefore, to maintain good gut health, junk foods ought not be religiously eliminated forever, but consumption of such foods can affect our mental health more significantly than we think; we advocate balance.

Correlation not causation?

The crash after the occasional hearty takeout may be familiar to most of us, but how clear is the science behind the anecdotal evidence? There is solid evidence revealing the negative effect such as a Spanish study [2] of 9,000 people’s patterns of fast food consumption reveals that there is a correlation between junk food and depression – though to what extent is this causal?

One such mechanism which explains the link between the food we eat, and our brains is the ‘gut-brain axis’. This bidirectional communication channel connects the brain to the gut and explains why gut health is so important. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain and its production is highly influenced by the ‘good’ bacteria that constitute our intestinal microbiome. These bacteria activate neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain.[3]

This area of research, albeit new, is promising, with data [4][5] from clinical studies showing potential to treat various psychiatric and neurologic disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, autism spectrum disorders, anxiety, and depression, among many others.[6] A systematic review of such observational studies [7] shows that a pro-inflammatory diet can induce systemic inflammation. Dr Camille Lassale, the study’s lead author reports that inflammation can directly increase the risk for depression. Furthermore, early stage research into psychobiotic supplements reveal that dietary supplements improve mental health by changing the mixture of bacteria in the gut, fast food has the opposite effect by causing inflammation. Even if you are not looking to overcome a mental health issue evidence suggests that improving gut health may improve moods and reduce anxiety in those with normal mental health.[8]

While you may be reading this, convinced of the science to evidence the importance of gut health, modern life is demanding and difficult as is – yet another thing to linger on your worry list seems daunting. Just how much commitment does a healthy gut entail?

Does it mean McDonald’s is a one-way ticket to the doom and gloom of obe-city?

It would be naïve, indeed discouraging, to rename the burger, fries and a milkshake combo an ‘unhappy meal’ conclusively. Banning certain foods is unsustainable and can mean we often give into the socially sanctioned idea of restrictive eating in the long run. Reset Your Health’s recipes leave you feeling satiated in the long term without a diet of junk food’s short-lived pleasures. Catherine Rogers put it astutely when she said ‘with fast foods so high in sugar that is absorbed so quickly into your bloodstream and stimulates your pleasurable dopamine receptors in the brain, how much choice do you really have?’  Intuitive eating by respecting your hunger cues is different to giving in to cravings of short term dopamine hits, a fulfilling and gut friendly diet as RYH provides balance and will be the most rewarding in the long run.

While there is some truth to the aphorism ‘you are what you eat’ there is even greater truth to the idea that you ‘feel what we eat’. It may be tempting to reach for ice-cream to scoop away the blues but for the long term, it is important not to trust your gut! We believe balance is key. Feeling your optimal self is the cataract surgery that converts the rose-tinted lens that junk food provides in the short term, into a reality.

If you would like to explore more on how to optimise your gut health and prime mental health, then why not sign up to RYH today?  

For more information on this topic see our previous post on food and wellness and on why poor gut health may be responsible for fatigue. 


[1] What are Processed Foods? [Internet]. 2020 [cited 23 June 2020]. Available from:

[2] Sánchez-Villegas A, Toledo E, de Irala J et al. Fast-food and commercial baked goods consumption and the risk of depression Public Health Nutrition, March 2012, 15: pp 424-432

 [3] MD, E., 2020. Nutritional Psychiatry: Your Brain On Food – Harvard Health Blog. [online] Harvard Health Blog. Available at: <> [Accessed 25 June 2020].

[4] Jiang H, Ling Z, Zhang Y, Mao H, Ma Z, Yin Y et al. Altered fecal microbiota composition in patients with major depressive disorder. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. 2015;48:186-194.

[5] Schwarz E, Maukonen J, Hyytiäinen T, Kieseppä T, Orešič M, Sabunciyan S et al. Analysis of microbiota in first episode psychosis identifies preliminary associations with symptom severity and treatment response. Schizophrenia Research. 2018;192:398-403.

[6] Martin C, Osadchiy V, Kalani A, Mayer E. The Brain-Gut-Microbiome Axis. Cellular and Molecular Gastroenterology and Hepatology. 2018;6(2):133-148.

[7] Lassale, C., Batty, G.D., Baghdadli, A. et al. Correction: Healthy dietary indices and risk of depressive outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Mol Psychiatry 24, 1094 (2019).

[8] Butler M, Mörkl S, Sandhu K, Cryan J, Dinan T. The Gut Microbiome and Mental Health: What Should We Tell Our Patients?: Le microbiote Intestinal et la Santé Mentale : que Devrions-Nous dire à nos Patients?. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. 2019;64(11):747-760.