How Does Diet Impact Teen Mental Health?

You’ve heard the adage, “you are what you eat.” In some ways, this is true. If you eat fresh, healthy foods most of the time, you are more likely to be healthy and fit. On the other hand, if you routinely eat a lot of junk food, foods with a lot of sugar, or those that contain a lot of fat, it would not be surprising to find yourself out of shape and lacking in energy. You might not have thought about it before, but your diet can impact your mental health just as much as it can impact your physical health. When it comes to your teenager, it might be difficult to get him or her to focus on healthier foods and forgo the large quantities of pizza, burgers, fries, potato chips, and cookies that are so tempting (and so available) to most teens. The typical teen diet is often too high in salt, fat, and sugar and too low in nutrients. Here are some ways that your teen’s food choices could be affecting his or her mental health as well as tips on how to encourage your teen to follow a healthier diet.

The Food-Mood Connection

Although the studies are limited, there is evidence that the foods we eat can directly impact our moods. One reason is that eating the correct foods can actually help the brain build up its strength. This means that the tissues, enzymes, and neurotransmitters in the brain can become healthier and more efficient when nutritious foods are eaten. The corollary, of course, is that by eating foods with a lot of refined sugars and saturated fats can negatively impact the brain.

Since many mental health conditions are affected by the areas of the brain responsible for cognitive controls like memory and self-control, it makes sense that doing what we can to nurture brain health can help with the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. In addition, eating certain nutrients, including omega-3s and zinc, can further improve growth in these areas of the brain.

Another reason for the food-mood connection can be as simple as thoughts and perceptions of various food choices. If you know that eating high-fat, high-sugar foods is bad for you, it’s not uncommon to feel a bit down after indulging. You might feel guilty or poorly about yourself. When this happens regularly, it could lead to:

  • poor self-esteem
  • social anxiety
  • health anxiety
  • depression
  • an eating disorder

It Starts in the Gut

When your teen eats food, the first place it goes is to his or her stomach and intestines. You might be surprised to know that serotonin, which is a “feel good” substance, is produced mostly in the gastrointestinal tract. This neurotransmitter is responsible for:

  • helping you sleep better
  • reducing pain
  • keeping your mood steady

The good bacteria in your intestines make this process go smoothly. They also protect the body from toxins and other bad substances that might be in the food you eat. Good bacteria boost serotonin levels and reduce inflammation and other problems that can negatively affect mental health.

Taking probiotics or eating foods that naturally contain probiotics (such as kefir, yogurt, and sauerkraut) can improve not only your overall health, but also your mental health. See if you can get your teen to add these to his or her diet. He or she might be surprised at how good they feel, both physically and mentally.

Nutrients to Focus on for Good Mental Health

Since it’s difficult to get a teenager to eat healthfully all the time, it might be worth seeing if you can get him or her to take supplements. One caveat: Don’t give your adolescent any supplements without asking a doctor first. Some are possible to overdose on and others might interact with other supplements or medications that your teen is taking. In addition, buying the cheapest one at the discount store might not have any effect. Ask your doctor which brands to look for and where to get them.

The B vitamins are known for reducing inflammation and improving mood and overall health. Some products, like cereals and breads, are enriched with B vitamins. Natural sources of vitamin B include:

  • meat
  • eggs
  • dairy products
  • legumes
  • leafy green vegetables

Iron is another nutrient that can result in depression when levels are too low. Some teen girls suffer from mild anemia, particularly if they have heavy periods. Because you can overdose on iron, it’s important to have your teen’s levels checked before resorting to supplements. Meat and leafy greens are natural sources of iron.

Fatty fish like salmon is good to eat, because it contains omega-3s, zinc, and selenium, all of which can boost one’s mood. You can also encourage your teen to eat a bit of dark chocolate each day, which can also improve mental health thanks to the antioxidants it contains.

Encouraging Your Teen to Make Better Choices

Simply telling your teenager to eat better is not likely to have the effect you might hope for. Here are a few suggestions to help encourage your teen to eat better.

  • Have Them Keep a Food Diary – One way to encourage your teen to make better choices is to ask him or her to keep a food diary. Have them write down what they eat and how they feel emotionally. This might show them some patterns and cause them to discover that they feel more energetic and positive on days that they eat better foods.
  • Eat Clean With Them – You could also make a deal to try to eat clean with your teen for two weeks. This means that you avoid processed foods and refined sugars. If you’re doing it together, it can be less overwhelming to your teen than simply being handed a list of foods to eat and avoid. Both of you might be surprised at how much better you feel when the time period is up, and you might decide to continue eating that way.

Handing your teen the reigns when it comes to his or her diet can be difficult, but by setting a good example and making him or her aware of the way that different foods make them feel, you can encourage a healthy diet without giving lectures or otherwise alienating your teenager. Remember that the habits picked up now can set the stage for a healthy adulthood, so do your best to influence your teen’s eating habits for the better.