French fries are a beloved comfort food for many, but the impact of frequent consumption of fried foods, particularly fried potatoes, on mental health has been brought into question by a research team in Hangzhou, China.
The study analyzed 140,728 people over an 11.3-year period and found that those who consumed fried foods had a 12% higher risk of anxiety and 7% higher risk of depression than those who did not. The link was more pronounced among younger consumers, especially young men. Fried foods are already known to pose health risks, such as increasing the likelihood of obesity and high blood pressure, and this study suggests that reducing the consumption of fried foods may be significant in the context of reducing mental health risks.
However, nutrition experts have cautioned that the results are preliminary, and it is unclear whether fried foods cause mental health issues or whether individuals experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression turn to fried foods for comfort. The study found that the participants consuming more than one serving of fried food regularly were more likely to be younger men. Dr. David Katz, a lifestyle medicine specialist who was not involved in the study, suggested that people with underlying symptoms of anxiety and depression could turn to comfort foods as a way of self-medicating.
The researchers hypothesize that the presence of acrylamide, a chemical formed during the frying process and particularly in fried potatoes, is responsible for the higher risk of anxiety and depression. In a separate paper cited in the study, the researchers exposed zebrafish to acrylamide and found that long-term exposure caused the fish to exhibit signs of higher anxiety levels, such as dwelling in dark areas of the tank and displaying reduced ability to explore and socialize with their species.
Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has cautioned that the results are very preliminary, especially with regard to the connection between fried foods and acrylamide. He has suggested that the health effects of fried food depend on what food is fried and what type of fat is used for frying. Furthermore, he noted that acrylamide is also present in coffee and toast.
Zhejiang University researcher Yu Zhang, an author of the study, has emphasized that there is no need to panic about the adverse effects of fried food. However, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and reducing the consumption of fried foods may be helpful for mental health in addition to overall health. The rise in depression and anxiety worldwide, particularly during the pandemic, has made this issue even more pressing. Katz has recommended that a variety of wholesome foods be included in the diet to promote both physical and mental health.