How Teen Nutrition Affects Mental Health

The way that your teen eats now will also set the precedent for their diet going forward in life, so good teen nutrition is an important factor in long term health.


You know that nutrition is an important factor in your teen’s physical health. Teenagers are developing rapidly, and their bodies need the nutrients that will help them develop strong bones and muscles, healthy skin, hardy immune systems, and more.

But you may not realize how important teen nutrition is to your child’s mental health, both in the short term and in the long term.

Take a look at what you need to know about teen nutrition and how it affects their mental health.

Food and Mood

Most people understand, at least on an instinctive level, that some food has an almost immediate effect on mood. There are several reasons for this, some of which have little to do with the actual ingredients in the food.

Like most matters involved in both teen nutrition and mental health, it’s a complicated subject.

A cookie or an ice cream sundae can give someone a temporary mood boost when they’re feeling low. The treats are associated with feelings of safety and comfort, so they feel safe and comforted.

Depending on the actual ingredients of the cookie or sundae, there may also be a physical explanation with the positive feelings that are associated with the food.

Chocolate – especially dark chocolate – is a well-known mood booster.

It causes the release of endorphins – the same feel-good hormones associated with exercise. Chocolate also naturally contains some caffeine, which can make you feel more energetic, and some people might interpret that as an improvement in their mood.

And of course, both cookies and ice cream are liable to contain sugar, which triggers the release of dopamine in your brain, which makes you feel happier – at least until the dopamine drops and the effects wear off, leaving you craving more.

Choosing the Right Foods

The problem is that these mood-boosting sweets only have short-term positive effects on your mood, and in the long run, they can actually make things worse.

Sugar cravings combined with physical effects like bloating or mental effects like stress about overeating can actually make mood worse. And foods that actually have a more lasting effect on mood and mental health often don’t work as quickly or dramatically as common unhealthy “comfort foods”.

Plus, since it’s usually high-fat or sugary foods that are used as treats, people often don’t have the same mental associations with healthy mood-boosting foods as they do with unhealthy ones.

For example, foods that have plenty of vitamin D, like canned salmon, can increase serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood.

Deficiencies in serotonin are linked with various mood disorders including seasonal affective disorder (SAD). But for most people, a can of salmon just doesn’t sound as comforting as a plate of pasta with cheese or a piece of cake. That’s likely at least partly because they associate cheesy pasta with happy family dinners or cake with birthday celebrations.

Food-Related Mental Health Disorders

There are a variety of mental health disorders that directly concern what and how a person eats.

Today, many parents are familiar with anorexia nervosa, which is a mental health disorder that often begins in the teenage years. It involves the person with the disorder refusing to take in as much nutrition as their body needs, effectively starving themselves.

Bulimia is another common disorder in this family. Those affected undergo cycles of binging on food and then purging it, either by vomiting or through other means, like the use of diuretics and laxatives. Other common eating disorders include:

  • Binge-eating disorder
  • Purging disorder
  • Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder

Most people think of eating disorders as a case of mental health affecting nutrition, not nutrition affecting mental health. But it may be more useful to think of it as a circle.

Teens who are eating in disordered ways may not be getting the nutrients they need for their bodies, but they’re also not getting the right nutrients for their mental health. Not eating enough food or purging the food that they do eat can impair their abilities to make good decisions and contribute to depression.

Binging on unhealthy foods, with or without purging, can lead to stress about weight gain and mood imbalances due to dramatic spikes and dips in blood sugar, dopamine, and other factors.

Disordered eating is a mental health problem in and of itself, but it also contributes to other mental health issues.

Foods for Good Mental Health

There are foods that can contribute to better mental health. Foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, for example, can support brain function.

People who eat diets higher in oily fish have been found in studies to experience less depression than people who do not eat oily fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, and anchovies.

Probiotic supplements have also been shown to correlate with decreased levels of depression in people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome. Whole grains contain vitamins that aid in the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin.

How a person eats matters as well – for example, people who eat breakfast regularly have fewer depressive symptoms than people who never eat or only sometimes eat breakfast, suggesting that the most important meal of the day benefits mood and mental health as well as physical health.

By the teen years, children are usually pretty clear about what foods they like and don’t like. But it’s not too late to add healthy nutrition habits and stop unhealthy ones.

Parents can help by making sure that they make healthy foods and snacks readily available, planning and preparing family meals, and ensuring that their teens are eating regularly and not overeating or skipping meals.

It can also help to cook creatively. Consciously work to create positive associations with healthy foods through shopping, meal planning, and food preparation.