Junk food linked to mental health, sleep problems - study

  • 01/03/2024
Junk food.
Higher exposure to ultra-processed foods is linked to an increased risk of 32 damaging health outcomes, the study shows. Photo credit: Getty Images

Eating and drinking junk foods, including fizzy drinks, sugary cereals and packaged snacks, is being linked to more than 30 physical, mental health and sleep problems.

That's according to an umbrella review, studied by Australian and international researchers, which combined the results of 45 previous meta-analyses on the topic. The review articles were published in the past three years and involved almost 10 million participants.

The study, published by The BMJ, shows higher exposure to ultra-processed foods is linked to an increased risk of 32 damaging health outcomes including cancer, major heart and lung conditions, mental health disorders and early death.

While it's noted the study cannot prove that junk food is causing the health problems, it says convincing evidence showed eating and drinking more junk foods was associated with around a 50 percent increased risk of cardiovascular disease-related death, a 48 - 53 percent higher risk of anxiety and common mental disorders, and a 12 percent greater risk of type 2 diabetes.

Also, highly suggestive evidence indicated that eating more junk food was associated with a 21 percent greater risk of death from any cause, a 40 - 66 percent increased risk of heart disease-related death, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and sleep problems, and a 22 percent increased risk of depression.

"These findings support urgent mechanistic research and public health actions that seek to target and minimise ultra-processed food consumption for improved population health," the study concludes.

Researchers urged public policies and action on ultra-processed foods, including front-of-pack labels, restricting advertising and prohibiting sales in or near schools and hospitals, and fiscal and other measures that make unprocessed or minimally processed foods and freshly prepared meals as accessible and available as, and cheaper than, ultra-processed foods.