4 Eating Habits That Are Damaging to Mental Health, a Dietitian Says

A quick trip through the drive-thru may be convenient, but it could also be affecting your mental health beyond just the little bit of fast-food guilt you might feel. Here's what a registered dietitian says are a few healthy (and easy!) alternatives to try.

What we eat doesn’t just impact our weight, hunger levels or energy. Current science suggests that choices you make in your diet can have broad implications for your overall physical and mental health. For example, a 2022 study found a link between ultra-processed foods and depression, and a 2020 study in the European Journal of Human Genetics reported a connection between poor diet and mental health disorders in young people. Food, and our behaviors around it, can impact everything from mood to self-esteem…so protect your mental well-being by avoiding these four harmful eating habits, as outlined by a registered dietitian who specializes in the link between food and psychology.

Into taking care of your mind? Also don’t miss 5 Eating Habits That Benefit Your Mental Health, a Registered Dietitian Says

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Consuming too much sugar

“While the brain prefers glucose as its fuel source, a number of studies show that a high-sugar diet is linked with low mood and depression,” says Kitty Broihier, MS, RD, LD, owner of NutriComm and creator of the Eating Habits Lab. “Sugar consumption increases inflammation in the body, which may also be a factor in the mental response to a sugary diet. It can be pretty easy to pinpoint sugary foods in the diet, but it’s important to consider what you’re drinking, too.”

Sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda have been linked to plenty of health concerns, including increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and fatty liver disease. It even messes with your neurological health: according to a study in the Frontiers of Psychiatry, drinking sugary beverages regularly has been associated with increased psychological and behavioral problems for adolescents, and has led to negative mental health outcomes for adults.

This Is Your Brain on Sugar: A Dietitian Details How a Love for Sweets May Worsen Your Memory

Following a western diet

Sugar is a major part of what many nutrition professionals refer to as the Standard American Diet (SAD). The abbreviation for this diet is unfortunately on-point: following the SAD also means consuming high amounts of saturated fat and refined or processed foods. Research has shown that consumption of these can increase the risk of depression symptoms, according to the journal PLoS ONE.

However, there is no denying that these foods come with convenience. Sometimes a quick run through the drive-thru is necessary when you’re hungry and trying to maintain a healthy blood sugar level. But you can still try to keep your meals convenient without overdoing it on the saturated fat and refined foods, like choosing these 10 healthy fast food options next time you order.

Tracking everything you eat and drink

Calorie-counting has been one traditional way to try to lose weight and get healthy, but Broihier points out that hyper-fixating on the numbers can negatively affect your mental health over time. “Tracking can be a useful tool, especially when you’re just establishing a new habit or starting to eliminate an un-useful habit,” she says, though adding: “[…B]ut when you do it long-term, that habit can turn into an obsession that ends up running your life.” 

Broihier typically encourages new clients to start off by tracking, then eventually she invites them to forgo the tool in order to set a healthier boundary and overall healthier habits

So instead of counting, she says, many experts recommend incorporating a balance of healthy foods into your diet. Then, pay attention to how you feel as you get more of these.

15 Pictures That Prove Calorie-Counting Won’t Always Help You Lose Weight

Not eating enough anti-inflammatory foods

Research shows how inflammation in the body can increase the risk of depression, and scientists suggest finding ways to decrease it. Your diet can play a major role in increasing inflammation, so choosing to regularly consume anti-inflammatory foods—like vegetables, fruits, and fish—can help reduce the risk of depression, compared to a diet heavy in added sugars, soda, and junk food, according to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Try incorporating these 18 Anti-Inflammatory Foods into your diet to get the most of their health benefits, while keeping your mental health in a good place.

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Kiersten Hickman
Kiersten Hickman is a journalist and content strategist with a main focus on nutrition, health, and wellness coverage. She holds an MA in Journalism from DePaul University and a Nutrition Science certificate from Stanford Medicine. Her work has been featured in publications including Taste of Home, Reader's Digest, Bustle, Buzzfeed, INSIDER, MSN, Eat This, Not That!, and more.