French fries and other fried foods are considered comfort food, namely foods capable of bringing peace of mind and consolation when one feels most anxious. The truth, however, is just the opposite. In fact, rather than bringing consolation, it seems that fried foods, and especially french fries, can increase the risk of developing anxiety and depression. This is what emerges from a very recent study published in the prestigious journal PNAS by a team from the St. Louis School of Medicine at Washington University (Wang et al, PNAS, March 2023).
French fries increase anxiety, the study
Researchers recruited 140 728 people whose eating habits and emotional state were known. The comparison of the data showed that those who regularly consume fried foods have a 12% increase in the risk of developing anxiety and a 7% increase in the risk of developing depression, compared to those who consume these foods less frequently. Among all fried foods, french fries are the food associated with the greatest increased risk of developing anxiety and depression.
Fried food, anxiety and acrylamide, here's the explanation
But how do you explain that those who consume fried foods more frequently have a higher risk of developing anxiety and depression? The answer is to be found in a compound that develops in foods that are fried, acrylamide. Acrylamide forms spontaneously in all foods containing starches, such as potatoes or bread, during cooking at high temperatures, such as frying, but also cooking in the oven and on the grill. From previous studies it is known that acrylamide is a potentially harmful substance for the body and that, in high doses, it is probably a carcinogen for humans, even if, at present, there is no certainty.
Then, at least until today, the action of acrylamide on the brain and on the emotional state was not known. The American scientists of the study we are talking about today tested the action of acrylamide on a population of zebra fish, a freshwater fish used as a human model given its genetic similarity. Exposure to high levels of acrylamide was found to cause behavior in zebrafish comparable to human anxiety and depression. The fish, in fact, were less curious to explore the environment and new territories and reduced their sociality. The explanation for what has been observed is that acrylamide increases neuroinflammation and alters cerebral lipid metabolism, conditions that, in turn, modify neuronal function and pave the way for anxiety and depression.
But a little fried food is good for you
Eating fried foods regularly, and especially french fries, therefore can also have repercussions on the brain, increasing neuroinflammation and the risk of developing anxiety and depression. However, fried food is not to be demonized and if consumed in moderation and without excesses it can certainly find a place in a healthy and balanced diet. In fact, as Dr. Fausto Aufiero states in his book The Nutritional and Therapeutic Role of Food, occasionally consuming fried foods stimulates the work of the liver and detoxification processes. However, with the precaution of avoiding, or at least limiting, the use of sunflower, corn and soybean oil for frying as they tend to deteriorate easily if exposed to high temperatures. While non-extra virgin olive oil and peanut oil are better from this point of view as they are more resistant.