Unhealthy Food and Psychological Stress: The Association between Ultra-Processed Food Consumption and Perceived Stress in Working-Class Young Adults

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Apr 7;18(8):3863. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18083863.


Background: Ultra-processed foods are industrial formulations made from food extracts or constituents with little or no intact food and often containing additives that confer hyper-palatability. The consumption of these products increases the risk of chronic non-communicable diseases. Stressed people may engage in unhealthy eating as a way to cope. This study aimed to verify whether ultra-processed food consumption was associated with perceived stress levels in industrial and retail workers from Vitoria da Conquista, Brazil.

Methods: This was a cross-sectional study carried out between July 2017 and August 2018. During the study period, 1270 participants completed a survey administered by an interviewer. Stress levels were assessed using the Perceived Stress Scale. Information regarding weekly ultra-processed food consumption was collected. Ultra-processed foods were classified into four groups: sugary drinks; sugary foods; fast foods; and canned foods, frozen foods, or processed meat. The Student's t-test or one-way analysis of variance was used to assess the differences in stress levels and ultra-processed food consumption. Ordinal regression was used to determine the association between the degrees of stress and ultra-processed food consumption levels.

Results: Factors such as a young age, being unmarried, smoking, high-risk alcohol consumption, negative health perception, and high perceived stress level indicated higher rates of ultra-processed food consumption. Ordinal regression analysis showed that high stress levels were associated with increased odds of higher ultra-processed food consumption (odds ratio: 1.94; 95% CI: 1.54-2.45).

Conclusions: These findings could help identify appropriate target areas for interventions aimed at mental health promotion and healthier food consumption.

Keywords: eating; eating behavior; psychological stress; stress; ultra-processed foods.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brazil / epidemiology
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Diet*
  • Fast Foods*
  • Food Handling
  • Humans
  • Stress, Psychological / epidemiology
  • Young Adult