“A generation ago, three-quarters of the money used to buy food in the United States was spent to prepare meals at home. Today about half of the money used to buy food is spent at restaurants--mainly at fast food restaurants.” says Eric Schlosser in his book, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. It is commonly recognized that junk food has become an indispensable part of our modern lifestyle, and the consumption of fast food is rapidly increasing every year. Fast food has clearly replaced snacks and in some cases even meals in the traditional diet. Consumption of snacks, confectionery, French fries and soft drinks continues to rise every year, with the largest segment of consumers being children and teenagers. This increasing consumption is being linked to many health issues that are manifesting themselves in adults as well as children. The question is whether these health issues have gone beyond the mere physical and into the area of mental health as well.
The fast food industry in the US generated $191 billion in revenues in 2013, and will grow to over $210 billion by 2018. Presently, there are over 232,000 fast food outlets across the United States (Statista, 1). It has now been proved that children consuming fast food are getting more calories but less nutrition, leaving them malnourished and in danger of contracting disease (UNC, 1). Fast food consumption has been positively linked to the rising incidence of diabetes, hypertension, stress and other physical disorders among children and teenagers. While there are clear indicators of junk food causing significant physical health problems, recent indicators have begun to associate even the rise of mental illnesses to the consumption of fast food, mainly among children and teenagers. Mental illnesses range from stress, anxiety, withdrawal from society to manic-depressive behavior, increased suicidal tendencies and psychosis. Researchers have begun to consider the possibility that intake of junk food could be a major contributory factor in teenagers’ mental health problems, besides the now-proven impact on physical health. A number of studies have shown that increased consumption of fast foods leads to a rise in blood sugar levels, HDL or bad cholesterol and other harmful elements in the bloodstream. These are known factors that contribute to the early development of lifestyle diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, thyroid disorders and heart disease. Could there be a similar impact on the mind as well? The recent decades have witnessed a significant rise in the consumption levels of humans. Increasing levels of food additives and pesticides are finding their way into our food. Cornah (5) has estimated that an average person in industrialised countries consumes more than 4 kilos of additives a year. Trans-fats, found often in fried foods and mostly in fast food chains due to the prevalence of deep-fried items such as burgers, French Fries, etc. are considered a major health hazard, and are a leading cause of cholesterol build-up among children. In this scenario, the increasing prevalence of children consuming fast food meals in lieu of home-cooked meals is cause for concern. The phenomenon has been elevated by the increasing instances of parents opting for quick options like fast food to replace the home cooked meals as parents are increasingly busy with their careers and have little time for household chores like cooking. However, this is having a significant negative impact on the health of children and youth today.
Traditionally, mental health problems are considered to be the outcome of a combination of factors, such as genetic predisposition, age and environment. The role of nutrition is one of the most apparent, yet overlooked causes of mental disorders. There is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates a direct link between an unhealthy diet and mental health. Recent studies have indicated that the consumption of fast food can have an adverse impact among those already inflicted with Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia (Van de Weyer, 1). The reduction of these foods from the diet of such patients was found to have a beneficial effect on the overall condition of the patients.
The human brain is highly sensitive to the quality of food intake. Fast food chains are aware of this fact and use it to their advantage, promoting fast foods through audio, visual and sensory perception. Fast food triggers the production of dopamine in our brains, giving us a misleading impression of a good mood once a person satisfies his craving for it. The lack of fast food over a lengthy period can trigger symptoms similar to withdrawal treatment, thereby increasing the craving. This is why we make poor food choices when we are hungry. Therefore, there is a clear connection between the food that we eat and the mental state that our brains are in when we eat it. Fast food provides a quick fix, a high similar to consuming drugs, which is why children are so addicted to it. Our psychological receptors are also tuned to this; hence hunger cravings immediately trigger images of fast food, not home-made meals. In addition, the level of sugar in most fast foods such as sodas and shakes is far higher than the food we consume at home. Sugar is known to provide its own ‘kick’ and trigger cravings. Sugar cravings are steeper and consumption of sugar leads to a quick elevation of the mood, followed by a quick drop, as can be seen when one consumes a piece of chocolate. A sudden drop in sugar levels can leave you feeling depressed, immediately triggering the need for more sugar. Through these two points it is clear that fast foods can alter the brain chemistry and activity in humans, and children are more susceptible to this as compared to adults who have learned to control their impulses.
Patterns of junk food intake and the relation to mood disorders have received considerable attention in recent studies. Carbohydrate consumption is believed to cause depressive moods (Van de Weyer, 1). It is worth pointing out that stress not only increases food intake but also shifts eating choices. However, it is a two-way process. Not only can depression trigger binge eating, but basically overeating seems to cause depression as well. People who consumed processed high-sugar and high-fat foods on a regular basis over five years were nearly 60% more likely to suffer from depression (Robson, para. 12). Teenagers normally are not capable of detecting fast food intake as the underlying cause, and as a consequence they become increasingly vulnerable to depression, psychiatric distress, chronic insomnia and other disorders. Intake of junk food can increase the risk of behavioral problems such as poor concentration and mood swings (Zahedi, 1391). Deep emotional distress may lead to the life-threatening issues, such as suicidal thoughts. Another consequence of regular use of fast food is increased aggressiveness. US researchers from the University of California divided 945 volunteers into two groups. One group was fed with burgers and fries, others consumed salads and fish. Both groups underwent a careful observation. It was found that those who ate fast food frequently yelled at others and were irritable and frustrated. Studies have also shown that a high intake of processed carbohydrates on a regular basis brings about social, hormonal, sexual and intellectual changes which shape teenagers’ further development. The accompanying changes in physical appearance are also a cause for anxiety among teenagers. There is pressure from society to conform to a perfect image, and teenagers who were overweight or obese were found to suffer from a higher incidence of mental health issues as well, due to the societal pressure they had to face through bullying and teasing (McNeely and Blanchard, pg. 17). This functioned as another trigger for teenagers to eat more, as the food gave them mental relief. However, this further added to the physical and mental problems they faced, triggering increasing instances of anxiety, depression and panic attacks.
Statistical data from a report of the Surgeon General, Rockville shows that “approximately 70% of children and adolescents who are in need of treatment do not receive mental health services” (1999). This is recognition that teens suffering from mental health issues are not being diagnosed properly, and the increasing instances of depression and anxiety as well as mood swings are attributed to “growing pains”, and therefore ignored by parents and counselors, leading to disastrous long-term consequences. Such kids tend to withdraw from society and rely increasingly on fast food to alleviate their mood, thereby creating a vicious cycle that is difficult to escape. According to the Mental Health Foundation, there are some scientific studies to support the evidence of some psychological problems, such as attention deficit disorder, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia being caused by the increased intake of “industrialized junk diet lacking in essential nutrients” (Lawrence, 6).
Multiple opponents argue that there is no relationship between teenagers’ mental health and intake of junk food, claiming that mental disorders are consequences of complex interactions between the congenital genes and acquired disposition. According to their view, some of the mental disorders have been caused merely by genetics and junk food is not at fault. Fast food chains have conducted their own studies to show that there is no coherent link between the increasing incidence of fast food consumption and growing concerns with children’s health. At the same time, these chains are going out of their way to launch new menu items that they are claiming as healthy, to mitigate the fallout of claims that fast food is affecting health. A typical example of this is McDonald’s attempt to launch McWraps, its version of a burrito roll that is supposed to be healthier than their burgers, and KFC’s launch of grilled chicken options as compared to its deep fried chicken pieces. A considerable number of people vehemently deny that junk food is at the core of mental disorders and deviant behaviour. The opponents claim that there are various essential nutrients, thus each group of food contains a set of necessary nutrients and certain amount of energy. The combination of products provides a complete set of necessary nutrients. No food is completely bad or completely good. The manner of eating, or to be more precise, overeating is at fault. There is a tendency that adolescents opt for junk food when they encounter some stressful situation or a slight depression. Hence, the point that fast food causes depressive moods does not make any sense. Furthermore, each teenager has an opportunity to make low-calorie decisions whenever he decides to eat some fast food. Numerous fast food restaurants provide calorie counts as well as nutritional information. Therefore, the fault lies with the consumers and not the fast food. While this argument can be used against grown-ups, it is difficult to defend it when the question is that of youth mindset, since their cognitive capabilities are not yet fully developed to the extent that they are able to make a coherent decision of this nature. The problem is that youth do not prefer to waste their time dwelling on repercussions. Mental health, particularly cognitive function is not intertwined with junk food, as those processes are predominantly defined by other factors, not related to food industry. The argument put forth against the mental health studies is that a diet cannot make a mentally deficient patient intelligent, the only solution for such a scenario is interventional drug therapy and counselling, in which fast food has got no role to play. This stand has been maintained consistently, even as Governments fail to conduct in-depth studies in this area. The fact remains however that the growing incidence of mental health issues is seen most among youth and children who have above-average consumption of fast foods. Therefore, in the absence of conclusive evidence, it is best to take precautions. The impact of fast food on the physical aspects of health has been clearly proved, in spite of consistent denials by the fast food industry and a number of surveys seeking to prove otherwise. The growing incidence of mental health issues is an indicator that there is definitely something wrong with the way teenagers and children are consuming food today, and this is triggering physical health issues among them. The link between the consumption of various types of foods such as trans-fats and sugar on brain activity has also been proven. Therefore, if one were to look at the issue in a simplified manner, it is clear that the increased level of calorie consumption and drop in nutritional intake resulting from an increased consumption of fast foods has some link to the changes in mental health of the children and youth. This is manifesting itself in the form of higher instances of depression, anxiety and psychotic behavior that is harmful for the long-term health. Therefore, the conclusion that can be drawn is that the behavior is a result of the increased consumption of fast food and this needs to be better controlled in order to ensure that the children do not suffer in the long term. While the direct connection between mental health issues of children and the increased consumption of fast foods is yet to be conclusively proven, given the other physical effects, it would be prudent for us to assume that this too is possible and suitable precautions need to be taken.
Cornah, Debarah. Feeding Minds: The impact of Food on Mental Health. Mental Health Foundation, January 2006.
Healthy Diet Vital for Adolescent Mental Health. Medical Xpress, 22 August 2014. Retrieved 19 November 2014 from http://medicalxpress.com/news/2014-08-healthy-diet-vital-adolescent-mental.html
McNeely, C and Blanchard, J (2009) The Teenage Years Explained, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg, Center for Adolescent health.
Robson, David. Is Fast Food Making Us Depressed? BBC, 26 August 2014. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140826-is-fast-food-making-us-depressed
Schlosser, Eric. (2005) Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Harper Perennial, New York.
Statista. Statistics and facts about the Fast Food Industry, August 2014. Retrieved 24 November 2014 from http://www.statista.com/topics/863/fast-food/
UNC. Kids eating convenience foods are getting more calories, less nutrition, study finds. 27 July, 2011. Retrieved from http://sph.unc.edu/kids-eating-convenience-foods-are-getting-more-calories-less-nutrition-study-finds/
Van de Weyer, Courtney. Changing Diets, Changing Minds: How Food Affects Mental Well Being and Behaviour. Mental Health Foundation, winter 2005.
Wainer, Jaclyn S. Perceived Stress, Perceived Social Support, Depression and Food Consumption Frequency in College Students. Carnegie Mellon University, 2010.