Fast food & mental health

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Fast food and mental health for maritime

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By Emily Reiblein, Crowley

Transportation workers push long hours, slipping in snacks and meals whenever an opportune moment arises. Grabbing a quick bite of fast food can seem like a good option, but food choices are an aspect of mental health that are often under considered and misunderstood.

Fast foods and highly processed foods are quick to heat and come easily packaged to carry into the field. Their drawback is that they are often loaded with sugars, cheap flours, lab made chemicals, and fillers that can have a very real and negative impact on the mind. Poor nutrition, particularly the consumption of fast food, is a risk factor for mental health deterioration. Your thoughts and feelings are related to what you eat.

In the last 20 years, studies have drawn a clear picture of how fast foods and processed foods impact our mental health. The Public Health Nutrition Journal in 2012showed that those who ate fast food routinely were 51% more likely to develop depression compared to those who ate little to none of it.

Additionally, the research showed it was a dose-response relationship meaning as the amount consumed went up, so too did depressive symptoms. These researchers pointed out that the relationship between study participants and other factors existed beyond poor food quality, such as smoking, however mental health deterioration in relationship to the amount of fast food consumed was evident.


Depression can get better when food quality increases and direct intervention can help individuals make better choices. Felice Jacka, a dietary researcher, showed that changes in dietary patterns—even small ones—could change depressive outcomes. Adults with depression who received nutritional counseling and then made adjustments to their diets saw depressive symptoms drop by 33%. They moved their dietary choices away from fast food toward more ­nutrient-rich foods. This is compared to 8% of individuals who had their depression symptoms decrease in the control group with no dietary interventions (BMC Medicine, Vol. 15, No. 23, 2017).

Diets rich in fibrous foods can also decrease symptoms of depression. After analysis of the dietary patters of 16,000 Americans, researchers suggest that fiber intake lowered depressive symptoms. When dietary fiber intake averaged 21 grams daily, depression risk was substantially lower (Nutrition. 2018 Oct.). While the mechanism of this reduction is unknown, it is speculated that inflammation may be a factor in depression and diets loaded with fiber lower gut inflammation and can also alter gut pH ultimately improving upon mental health (Nutr Rev. 2020 May 1).

Diets rich in healthy fats also help increase mental strength and decrease depressive symptoms. The American Psychiatric Association recommends the use of omega-3 fatty acids to complement the treatment of depressive disorders. Their recommendation is supported by studies like the Hordaland Health Study published in 2006, which saw 21,000 participants showed the impact of consuming cod liver oil on depression. Those who regularly took omega-3 rich cod liver oil were about 30% less likely to have symptoms of depression than those who did not.

Choosing Real Food

This study also revealed a dose-response relationship noting that the longer one took the omega-3 fatty acid, the less likely they were to have high levels of depression. While cod liver oil was once known as something one had to choke down, it now comes with flavors and in caplets for easy consumption. It is one of many omega-3 rich foods that impact our mental health and are readily available on supermarket shelves.

All of the above research points to one inevitable conclusion: choosing real food! Consuming whole foods is a good first step. These are foods that come in their natural form, with nothing added to them. They are unprocessed and while they do require a bit of preparation, the benefit to long-term physical and mental health is undeniable. A good follow-up step is to limit processed food items to those with few ingredients that can be pronounced easily. With no added sugars, preservatives and artificial flavorings one’s physical and mental health can reach new heights.

Our good mental health is connected to what we put into our mouths. Choosing to eat whole and “real” foods, verses those that are prepackaged and brimming with fillers, can help secure aspects of our mental health for years to come.

Nothing in this article constitutes medical advice. All medical and mental health advice should be sought by a medical professional.

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