Next to burgers and decadent milkshakes, French fries represent the epitome of fast-food comfort. But while these deep-fried spuds may seem like a pleasing, low-stakes indulgence, consuming fries on a regular basis could actually affect consumers in a way that feels like the exact opposite of comfort, according to newly-published research.
In a recent study published by the PNAS scientific journal, researchers from the Zhejiang University in China, who reportedly gathered data from more than 140,000 participants over the course of approximately 11 years, revealed that they observed a clear connection between the frequent fried food consumption–especially fried potatoes–and a greater risk of depression and anxiety.
Specifically, the researchers’ findings show that frequently eating fried foods was linked to a 12% higher risk of anxiety and a 7% higher risk of depression. The connection between fried foods and these mental health issues was especially strong in males and younger people. These findings “highlight the significance of reducing fried food consumption for mental health,” the study concludes.
The researchers pointed to a substance called acrylamide as the potential cause for this association between fried foods and depression and anxiety. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), acrylamide can form in plant-based foods like potatoes during “high-temperature cooking,” such as frying, roasting, and baking. Acrylamide has also been shown to cause cancer in animals when they’re exposed to very high doses, but it’s not exactly clear what risk it poses to humans, according to the FDA.
So what does this new study mean for fried food consumers across the world? For starters, those concerned about the effects of fried foods on their mental health should take the study’s conclusions with a grain of salt, according to Mike Bohl, MD, MPH, ALM, certified personal trainer, nutrition coach, and a member of our Medical Expert Board.
“There isn’t any convincing evidence from this study to suggest that consumption of acrylamide in fried food causes anxiety or depression,” says Bohl.
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In the new study, the researchers referenced separate research that looked at how zebrafish responded to long-term acrylamide exposure. That older research found that the exposure caused zebrafish to display “anxiety- and depressive-like behaviors,” such as hanging out in dark zones in the tank and cutting back on exploring and socializing with other fish.
The connection between acrylamide in fried foods and depression and anxiety “is one hypothesis the researchers put forward, but the research in zebrafish is very limited and isn’t easily translatable to humans,” explains Bohl. “In separate research, there is evidence that very high doses of acrylamide can cause cancer in animals, but this also has not been clearly shown in humans. There would need to be further research into acrylamide to know what health effects—if any—consumption of the amount found in fried foods has on humans.”
Bohl also notes that it may not be fried food consumption that increases the risk of depression and anxiety—but rather, coping with anxiety and depression might compel someone to eat more fried foods.
“It’s possible that instead of fried food leading to anxiety or depression, people with anxiety or depression are more drawn to fried food,” he said.
However, while occasionally eating fried foods likely won’t cause major issues, consuming them very frequently may impact some people’s mental health in more indirect ways. Bohl said that fried foods are typically high in calories and saturated fats, so maintaining a diet that emphasizes these foods over healthier alternatives like fruits and vegetables can lead to issues like obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
“This chronic disease burden could, in turn, have an impact on mental health,” he adds.
In general, consumers who want to care for their overall health should limit the number of fried foods in their diet, Bohl advises. And when they do choose to indulge, they should be mindful of small details that can make those experiences a little healthier. If you’re cooking fried foods at home instead of eating out, for example, Bohl suggests opting for cornstarch or almond flour in lieu of refined flour for breading and using a healthier oil option–like olive oil–over vegetable oil.