Have you ever read the ingredients on your breakfast cereal box or other ultra-processed foods (UPFs)? It’s not for the faint of heart. Sodium bicarbonate, yellow 5, pyridoxine hydrochloride, and six synonyms for sugar. What is this stuff? Ultra-processed food contains high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and chemical additives like artificial color, sweeteners, and preservatives. They are usually found in the freezer section or the center aisles of grocery stores and make up about 70% of packaged food sold in the U.S.
Ultra-Processed Foods, Mood & Mental Health
Intuitively, eating unpronounceable chemicals and yellow or red dye seems unhealthy. But recent research confirms the correlation between UPFs and feelings of anxiety and low depression. Another study shows a connection between high levels of UPFs and cognitive decline in those who consume more than 20% of their calories from processed foods. And although researchers do not know what a “safe level” of UPF consumption is, they did find that those who offset UPFs with a diet rich in whole grains, green leafy vegetables, fish, chicken, and other whole foods reduced the risk of dementia associated with processed foods.
“Individuals reporting higher intakes of UPF were significantly more likely to report mild depression, more mentally unhealthy and more anxious days and less likely to report zero mentally unhealthy or anxious days. These data add important information to a growing body of evidence concerning the potential adverse effects of UPF consumption on mental health.” National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Nutrition and Addiction Recovery at Sanford Behavioral Health
For those in recovery from addiction, and other mental health conditions, attention to UPFs and nutrition is even more critical. Sanford Behavioral Health Clinical Director Lynell Brewster, RN, LPC, LLMFT, CCTP, says, “Working in the field of addiction, it is not uncommon for me to hear people say, ‘I should be able to indulge in all the sweets and processed foods I want.’ There is a shared belief that treating themselves to processed foods is better than using their drug of choice. No one is saying our clients shouldn’t have cookies and milk or a pizza with the kids. But a diet high in ultra-processed foods can be detrimental to recovery. Researchers are discovering that our foods affect our moods, cravings, and even long-term sobriety.”
There is a nutritional dilemma faced by individuals in recovery from addiction:
- The act of ingesting drugs or alcohol wreaks havoc on the body.
- Alcohol interferes with nutrient breakdown resulting in nutritional deficiencies.
- Opiates cause gastrointestinal issues.
- Stimulants suppress appetite, leading to insufficient calories and vital nutrients.
- Lynnel Brewster says, “A person in active addiction is less likely to eat whole foods. Some drugs make you overeat, and some cause you to eat too little. It is not unusual, at the height of an alcohol use disorder, for as much as 50 percent of the daily caloric intake to come from alcohol.”
How Nutrition Helps the Therapeutic Process:
Nutrition has the potential to make people in recovery feel better mentally and physically. Adequate nutrition provides:
- Energy to the body
- The needed help to build and repair organ tissue
- The necessary nutrients to strengthen the immune system
For many people in recovery, there can be damage to vital organs during active addiction. Nutrition can provide the dietary components needed to help restore potentially damaged tissues.
Nutrition also plays a vital role in mood regulation. Changes in diet can even alter brain structure both physiologically and chemically. These changes can influence behavior. The consumption of certain foods has been tied to increased production of key neurotransmitters like serotonin. Serotonin assists in mood enhancement. This means people in recovery can use food to feel better physically and mentally. For many in recovery, feeling better can help reduce the risk of relapse. And research suggests that those in recovery with insufficient dietary lifestyles are at higher risk of relapse.
When moderating processed foods, a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “Would I put this in my home cooking?” Sanford Director of Dining Services Chef Peter Claus says, “Nutrition is such an important part of recovery, and at Sanford Behavioral Health, we emphasize fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and proteins. We also make accommodations for our gluten-, dairy-free or vegetarian clients. At the same time, we provide comfort foods like a pizza on a Friday night or homemade macaroni and cheese. It’s all about enjoying food and supporting mental health at the same time.”