Consuming ultra-processed foods is linked to how teens feel and behave—according to study

New research conducted by the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) and the Girona Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBGI) found that Spanish adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 who consume a higher quantity of ultra-processed foods and beverages experience more mental health difficulties.

In Spain, the consumption of ultra-processed foods and drinks has increased threefold in recent years.

Adolescents are the primary consumers of these industrial products, which are low in nutrients like protein and fiber, high in energy-dense ingredients like saturated fats and added sugars, and often contain additives like colorings and flavor enhancers that make them appealing, tasty, and addictive.

A study conducted by the UAB’s Faculty of Medicine, Institut de Neurociències, and Barcelona Public Health Agency analyzes the link between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and psychosocial issues like anxiety, low mood, and attention deficits [1].

The study also considers the positive effects of daily intake of fruits and vegetables and weekly physical activity on mental health.

According to the research, there is a clear connection between consuming high amounts of ultra-processed foods and drinks, experiencing emotional distress, and exhibiting behavioral issues.

The study found that adolescents who participated in the research reported feeling the most significant impact on their mood due to this association [2].

In the study, teenagers, on average, consumed 7.7 ultra-processed foods the day before. Boys had a higher consumption rate with 8.6 ultra-processed foods compared to 7 for girls.

The most commonly consumed foods were sausages, biscuits, and processed meats (50-60%), followed by chocolate products, snacks, chocolate drinks, and sauces (40-50%). Flavored yogurts, processed bread and pastries, sugary cereals, soft drinks, packaged fruit juices, and processed crisps were also consumed by 30-40% of participants.

Teens reported consuming an average of 1.93 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, much lower than the recommended five servings per day. They also reported engaging in physical activity on an average of 2.9 days per week.

Adolescent girls consumed more fruits and vegetables (2 servings) compared to boys (1.7 servings), while boys engaged in more physical activity (3.6 days) compared to girls (2.3 days).

Out of all the participants, 26.2% exhibited psychosocial issues. Emotional distress, specifically depression and anxiety, was present in 33.9%, while 9.5% exhibited attentional problems and 3.9% showed behavioral issues.

Girls had higher rates of psychosocial problems in all areas except for behavioral issues, where both genders had similar rates. Low mood and feelings of anxiety were particularly prevalent among girls.

According to Pietro Tonini, a researcher from ICTA-UAB, the link between consuming ultra-processed foods and mood and anxiety issues in adolescents aligns with previous research on similar groups. Tonini and Marta Reales from IDIBGI suggest that further investigation is necessary to understand the connection between consuming these products and attentional and behavioral problems.

“The relationship between ultra-processed products and psychosocial problems is more marked among adolescent boys; this could be due to the hypothesis that they consume a greater amount of certain types of ultra-processed products, such as sugary and sweetened beverages (soft and energy drinks and packaged fruit juices) and processed meats, as well as the fact that they eat less fruit and vegetables.” – Pietro Tonini, ICTA-UAB researcher and first author of the study.


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