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7 Worst Foods for Your Mental Health, Say Experts

November 1, 2023

The right meal doesn’t just taste good, but there are times when it makes you feel something emotionally, too. It could be a favorite family meal that makes you happy, or an international delight that brings back feelings of nostalgia for a much-missed vacation. No matter what the recipe is, food can often bring up plenty of emotions.

When food breaks down it can continue to have an even deeper impact on your mental health beyond bringing up various emotions. When it’s processed in the body, some food can help to boost your mental health, like fatty fish which help to prevent cognitive decline. Others, like sugar-filled cereals, or alcohol, can have more detrimental impacts, like inducing stress and anxiety, or causing you to become irritated.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of the foods that are the most unhealthy for your physical wellbeing also have drastic mental effects as well, from drinking too much caffeinated coffee to foods with a high amount of refined sugar, like candy. Between making you irritable, activating your body’s stress hormone, and sometimes leading to depression, here are some of the worst foods you can eat that will have a detrimental impact on your mental health.

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1. Cereal

bowl of colorful sugary cereal


When you’re in a rush, there are few breakfast options more simple, and quick, to put together than cereal — just open the box and pour in some milk. While it’s important to eat breakfast as you begin your day, if you choose a cereal that’s heavily processed and packed with added sugars, you might be starting your day off on the wrong foot.

“Processed foods are those made from refined carbohydrates, stabilizers, emulsifiers, and other ingredients to enhance shelf stability, flavor, and texture,” says Trista Best, RD at Balance One Supplements. “This form of processed foods can be harmful to our health both physically and mentally. Sugary breakfast cereals are among the worst processed foods to consume. They are made with refined carbohydrates as well as refined sugar, food dyes, and artificial flavors.”

Not all cereals are highly-processed and they won’t all be detrimental to your mental health. Check out the cereal’s ingredients before you decide to eat it, and avoid refined sugars and excessive carbohydrates.

“Refined sugar and carbohydrates cause inflammation in the body and poor gut health, both of which lead to weight gain, brain fog, fatigue, and irritability,” Best says.

2. Coffee

woman paying for a cup of coffee


Many people can’t start their day without a morning cup of coffee, and while it can help to wake you up mentally, excessive coffee drinking can have some bad side effects. It’s not necessarily coffee that can be detrimental to mental health, but the caffeine that’s in it. While caffeine can energize you, and give you a nice buzz to start the day. When the buzz is gone, excessive caffeine can lead to more than just a crash, it could also result in a detrimental impact on your mental health.

“Having one or two cups of coffee a day won’t hurt, but drinking caffeine in excess in any shape or form can lead to anxiety, feelings of unease, insomnia, and even depression,” says Juliana Tamayo, RD.

Instead of upping your caffeine intake with multiple cups of coffee, or tea, switch to decaf, then you’ll be able to enjoy your morning cup of joe without worrying about any effects it could have on your mental health.

3. Frozen pizza

putting a frozen pizza in a microwave


It’s not a surprise that frozen pizza isn’t exactly a healthy meal. It might surprise some people to learn that it doesn’t just impact physical health, though. Frozen pizza contains a lot of trans fats, which are a type of unsaturated fat that are found in large amounts in many processed foods, and following a diet that’s high in trans fats can have negative impacts on mental health in addition to physical health.

“​​[Foods high in trans fats] are highly inflammatory, which can lead to inflammation in the brain and overall memory fog, mood changes, and even feelings of addiction to these same foods that then lead to unhealthy cycles,” says Tamayo.

Additionally, foods that are high in trans fats, like frozen pizza, can result in high cholesterol, heart disease, and high blood pressure, according to Tamayo.

4. Alcohol

woman drinking alcohol alone


There’s plenty of reasons why someone would drink alcohol, including to celebrate something or to feel festive at a party. Alcohol isn’t always fun and celebratory, though. When it’s consumed in excess, alcohol can turn pretty dangerous. Not only can it have disastrous impacts on mental health because it’s a depressant, but drinking too much of it can result in death.

“Drinking alcohol in moderation is not necessarily dangerous,” Tamayo says. However, alcohol is a depressant and highly addictive, and it can leave a person feeling sad, irritated, and sluggish.”

It’s important to drink alcohol in moderation, which will help to potentially avoid any feelings of irritation or depression resulting from alcohol intake.

Related: The Psychological Effects of Alcohol You May Not Know About

5. Candy



No one thinks that candy is a healthy, nutritional food, but sometimes you really want a sweet treat. When you’re having a sugar craving it’s best to opt for foods that have naturally-occuring sugar, like fruit or honey, instead of eating candy.

Eating candy can result in weight gain, and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. It can also lead to poor mental health through increased stress as well, because of its high refined sugar content.

“Because these sugars are so quickly metabolized by the body, they tend to result in energy spikes and crashes in the short term, and stress on your body’s metabolism and stress responses with repeated use,” says Catherine Rall, RD at Happy V.

6. French fries

french fries in a bowl


Oftentimes when people are stressed, they turn to comfort foods like French fries, or other fried items. While these foods may provide comfort in the moment, they could contribute to further mental health issues, according to Catherine Margolis, RD at Lifeway.

“We already know that fried foods are not great for the heart but are also learning they are not great for our mind,” Margolis says. “According to recent studies, eating fried foods is correlated with a higher risk of anxiety and depression. This may be due to the acrylamide produced during frying, which causes oxidative stress and neuroinflammation.”

7. Soda

soda in cups with straws


Whether it’s because of its taste, its carbonation, or just out of habit, some people tend to drink a lot of soda. Drinking an excessive amount of the carbonated beverage can result in an increased risk of developing diabetes, and can also lead to oxidative stress.

“A high sugar intake can lead to oxidative stress, which is an imbalance between the production of harmful free radicals and the body’s ability to counteract them,” says Emily Norman, RD at Pay It Forward Fertility. “Oxidative stress can damage brain cells and is implicated in various mental health disorders.”

Instead of drinking beverages that come packed with excess sugars, drink water, which has a number of associated health benefits like helping the body obtain clearer skin and maintaining blood pressure. Drinking water was also linked to a lower risk of developing depression and anxiety, according to a 2018 study published in the World Journal of Psychiatry.

Read next: 6 Mental Health Effects of Eating Too Much Sugar

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