Can Eating French Fries Really Increase Your Risk of Depression and Anxiety?

  • Frequent consumption of fried foods may be associated with an increased risk of depression and anxiety.
  • Regularly eating fried foods—especially fried potatoes—was associated with a 12% higher risk of anxiety and a 7% higher risk of depression, mainly in men and younger people.
  • Study authors blame a chemical called acrylamide, a chemical byproduct of cooking foods at high temperatures.

Frequently eating fried foods—particularly fried potatoes, like french fries—may be linked to an increased risk of both depression and anxiety, new research shows. But experts say the findings should be interpreted with caution.

The new claim comes from an April study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which looked at the correlation between fried food consumption and the risk of anxiety and depression.

The researchers found that frequent consumption of fried foods, “especially fried potato consumption,” was associated with a 12% higher risk of anxiety and a 7% higher risk of depression. Men and younger consumers were most affected, researchers reported.

According to study authors, acrylamide—a chemical byproduct of cooking foods at high temperatures through frying, roasting or baking—may be the culprit at the root of fried foods’ association with anxiety and depression.

But while the new research may throw a wrench in your lunchtime plans, experts say the findings should be interpreted with caution, and that you may not need to give up your favorite fried snacks completely. Here’s what you need to know.

woman eating french fries

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Do Fried Foods Really Impact Mental Health?

Eating fried foods is common among people who follow a Western-style diet, and past research has shown that eating fried food is linked linked to negative health outcomes like obesity, heart disease, and even cancer.

What’s less known, however, is how fried food affects mental health—which is what researchers at Zhejiang University in China sought to uncover in the new study.

To take a closer look at the correlation between fried food consumption and anxiety and depression symptoms, researchers looked at data from 140,728 people from the U.K. Biobank study. Over the course of about 11 years of follow-up, a total of 8,294 cases of anxiety symptoms and 12,735 cases of depression symptoms were identified.

Compared with people who didn’t consume fried foods, people who regularly consumed fried foods were more likely to identify as male, smokers, and were often younger. Frequent eaters of fried foods also had a higher body mass index, lower household income and education level, lower vitamin supplement use, and higher energy (calorie) intake.

After adjusting for age and sex, researchers found that fried food consumption—particularly fried potato products and fried white meat—was significantly associated with a higher risk of anxiety and depression symptoms. The findings were also more pronounced in male and younger consumers.

Though human data is lacking, researchers linked the increased risk of anxiety and depression from fried foods to a chemical called acrylamide, which can form mainly in foods made from plants—including potatoes, grain products, or coffee—during high-temperature cooking processes.

In addition to looking at the association between fried foods and anxiety and depression, researchers also tested their theory on acrylamide by exposing zebrafish to the chemical to see how it would impact their levels of anxiety and depression.

It was determined that chronic exposure to acrylamide among zebrafish induced more anxiety- and depression-like behavior (i.e., spending more time at the bottom of a fish tank, reducing exploration ability in new environments, and being less likely to prefer being in groups).

Though acrylamide isn’t necessarily new in food—it’s likely always been there—it was only first detected in certain foods in April 2002.

Acrylamide was already considered a probable human carcinogen (cancer-causing agent), and a few years later the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) concluded it to be a “human health concern.” However, human studies on the link between acrylamide intake and cancer is lacking—the chemical has mainly been shown to cause cancer in animals when exposed to very high doses.

The new research also suggests that long-term exposure to acrylamide may be linked to people experiencing an inflammatory response in the brain and spinal cord, which may lead to anxiety- and depressive-like behaviors.

Should You Avoid Fried Foods?

Approximately 30% of adults have anxiety at some point. Anxiety is characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure. Depression affects about 16 million American adults every year.

It's also believed that markers of acrylamide exposure can be found in the blood of up to 99.9% of the U.S. population. Because of these stats, it is not surprising that people want to find ways to reduce their intake of both acrylamide and lessen their risk of anxiety and depression.

But according to Nicole Lippman-Barile, PhD, NTP, a clinical psychologist and nutritional therapy practitioner, people don’t necessarily need to forego one all fried dishes based on this data.

“There is no one food that is linked to developing depression long-term,” Lippman-Barile told Health. “Depression is a multifactorial disease with many different variables that contribute to its presentation in an individual. It’s an inaccurate and simplified narrative to say that one food is linked to depression [or anxiety].”

Beyond that, Lippman-Barile noted that the study has limitations to consider, including that the authors did not control for variables that independently affect mental health outcomes like anxiety and depression, such as economic status, smoking, BMI, and education. Not controlling for these factors doesn’t allow us to rule these variables out as potential confounders.

“While this research does raise concerns about French fry consumption, it is still preliminary, and associations don’t necessarily mean causation,” Melissa Mitri, MS, RDN, a Connecticut-based registered dietitian, told Health. “This means there could be other factors leading to an increased risk of anxiety other than solely eating French fries.”

However, “even though research is needed, we do know that an overall healthy and balanced diet filled with nutrient-dense foods and low in fried foods like french fries is beneficial for mental health outcomes,” Mitri said.

Reducing Your Acrylamide Exposure

“Understanding the relationship between food and depression is very complex and very nuanced,” Lippman-Barile told Health, emphasizing that it is our overall dietary pattern that may or may not make a difference in mental health outcomes for some people, not individual foods that we may want to occasionally consume because we enjoy them.

And while experts are not convinced that, based on the current data, we need to be overly concerned about acrylamide intake and anxiety or depression, you may choose to find simple ways to reduce your exposure to these compounds.

If you are a fried foods lover and you’re concerned about your acrylamide intake, here are some simple ways to reduce the content of this chemical in your favorite dishes:

  • Reduce consumption of foods that are larger sources of acrylamide, including french fries, potato chips, coffee, and certain highly-processed grains like cereal, cookies, and toast.
  • Focus less on frying potatoes and more on baking or roasting potatoes. Better yet, boil or microwave potatoes more often—those processes do not produce acrylamide.
  • Soak raw potatoes in water for 15–20 minutes before frying or roasting.
  • Store potatoes outside of the refrigerator, in a cool, dark place, such as a closet or pantry.
  • Avoid cooking potatoes or toasting bread until the food gets very dark (“golden” foods have less acrylamide; “brown” foods have more acrylamide).

It’s also important to remember that frequent exposure to acrylamide may be linked to harmful outcomes. That means eating an occasional serving of french fries as a part of an overall balanced and healthy diet does not appear to be the single deciding factor on whether you will develop depression or anxiety.

Focusing on dietary patterns instead of single foods, and eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains while limiting fried foods and concentrated sweets appear to be your best bet when trying to support both your mental and your overall health.

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  1. Wang A, Wan X, Zhuang P, et al. High fried food consumption impacts anxiety and depression due to lipid metabolism disturbance and neuroinflammation. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2023;120(18):e2221097120. doi:10.1073/pnas.2221097120

  2. Food and Drug Administration. Acrylamide and diet, food storage, and food preparation.

  3. Food and Drug Administration. Acrylamide questions and answers.

  4. American Psychiatric Association. What are anxiety disorders?.

  5. American Psychological Association. Anxiety.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mental health conditions: depression and anxiety.

  7. Food and Drug Administration. Acrylamide.

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