Teen nutrition is very important. We are what we eat. Furthermore, that applies not just to our bodies, but also to our minds. An increasing number of scientific studies show that there is a direct link between diet and mental health. Moreover, this is particularly true for children and teens, whose brains and bodies are still developing. Hence, nutrition is critical at this stage of life.
The good news is that what we eat, and what we feed our families, is within our control. In addition, a healthy diet can prevent or address a wide range of emotional, physical, and mental imbalances.
“Many of our teens have been abusing their bodies through drug use or neglect of general health secondary to depression and/or anxiety, as well as eating disorders. We teach the kids that, through healthy eating, their minds can be clearer, their aches and pains can be relieved, and their futures can be brighter.” —Dr. Rachel Fortune, Medical Director at Newport Academy
Mental Health and the Modern American Diet
Since the 1950s, the way we eat in America has been significantly declining in terms of nutrition and health. The Modern American Diet (MAD), also called the Standard American Diet (SAD), is characterized by the following:
- Low intake of fruit and vegetables—one study showed that only one in 10 Americans eat the recommended amount of vegetables
- High intake of meat, dairy, fat, and sugar
- Increased consumption of refined and processed foods, otherwise known as junk food.
The MAD diet has been shown to increase the risk of a number of diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and atherosclerosis. This way of eating also negatively affects kidney function, lung function, cholesterol levels, and asthma symptoms.
Trans fat is a particularly dangerous component of the MAD diet. In one study, researchers tracked the diets of 12,000 people for six years. They found that those who consumed high amounts of trans fat, about 1.5 grams daily, increased their risk of depression by as much as 48 percent.
“Study after study in the medical research journals confirm that people who are most dependent on MAD-style eating habits have increased levels of depression, anxiety, mood swings, hyperactivity, and a wide variety of other mental and emotional problems.” —Tyler G. Graham and Drew Ramsey, The Happiness Diet
New Research on Healing Depression with Food
Researchers in Australia recently completed the first randomized controlled trial to directly test whether improving diet quality can actually treat clinical depression. The study is known as the SMILES Trial (Supporting the Modification of Lifestyle in Lowered Emotional States).
Published in the journal BMC Medicine in January 2017, the study involved 67 men and women with moderate to severe depression. All participants reported eating a relatively unhealthy diet before joining the study. They were divided into two groups for the three-month intervention. One group was put on a modified Mediterranean diet: They ate more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, low-fat dairy, and less sugar, fried food, and processed foods. The other group continued eating their usual unhealthy diets, but attended social support groups, which have been proven to help with depression.
After three months, researchers measured the participants’ depressive symptoms. Here’s what they concluded: A third of those in the dietary support group met the criteria for remission of major depression, compared to only 8 percent of those in the social support group.
According to Felice Jacka of Deakin University in Australia, who led the study, “These results were not explained by changes in physical activity or body weight, but were closely related to the extent of dietary change. Those who adhered more closely to the dietary program experienced the greatest benefit to their depression symptoms.”
In other words, treatment by diet alone cured depression in a third of the participants.
The Role of Omega-3 Acids and Amino Acids
Researchers have found a link between depression and deficiencies in particular nutrients. One category of nutrients that impacts mental health is omega-3 fatty acids. These acids play a role in the functioning of serotonin and dopamine, both critical to mood and mental health. Consequently, an extreme deficiency in DHA (the chief omega) is associated with disorders including depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, dyslexia, and schizophrenia. Therefore it is interesting that depression rates are typically lowest in countries like Japan, where oily fish is a diet staple.
Healthy sources of omega-3 fatty acids
- Salmon, sardines, and anchovies
- Chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, and pumpkin seeds
The amino acids tyrosine and tryptophan both have a powerful impact on mood and mental health. Tyrosine, the building block of dopamine, helps neurotransmitters combat stress. Tryptophan, a building block of proteins, helps balance hormones and aids in serotonin production. Thus, introducing more foods containing these amino acids will improve mood and overall mental stability.
Healthy sources of tyrosine and tryptophan
- Organic or grass-fed meat, particularly turkey
- Organic and free-range eggs
- Organic cheese
- Beans and other legumes.
Vitamins and Mental Health
Specific vitamins play specific roles in our bodies. Furthermore, they each have a role to play in supporting mental health.
Our levels of vitamin D affect our levels of serotonin, which in turn impact mood. Hence, increasing vitamin D intake has been shown to alleviate depression.
Sunlight is the best natural source of vitamin D. But as we spend more and more time indoors, we get less and less of this important nutrient. Three-quarters of American teens and adults are deficient in vitamin D.
Doctors recommend spending between 10 and 20 minutes outdoors daily, without sunscreen, in order to reap the benefits of natural light. These foods also provide vitamin D:
- Organic, free-range eggs
- Cod liver oil.
The B Vitamins
According to the Mayo Clinic, vitamin B-12 and other B vitamins play a role in producing brain chemicals that affect mood and other brain functions. In one study, more than a quarter of severely depressed older women were deficient in B-12.
Vitamin B3 (niacin) and vitamin B6 both support tryptophan production. Consequently, they help reduce anxiety and depression.
Good food sources for B vitamins include the following:
- Dark leafy greens (turnip greens, Swiss chard, mustard greens, collards, spinach)
- Bell peppers
- Cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts)
- Wild-caught fish
- Low-fast dairy products
- Organic, free-range eggs.
Scientists have found that low folic acid is associated with depression. To increase your folic acid levels, try eating more of these foods:
- Green vegetables
- Citrus fruit
- Whole-wheat bread.
Magnesium is sometimes referred to as the stress antidote. In fact, some doctors and scientists believe that depression rates are increasing because we no longer get enough magnesium in our diet. Researchers Karen and George Eby have published multiple case studies in which magnesium treatment improved symptoms of depression in as few as seven days.
Good sources of magnesium include these foods:
- Leafy greens.
Sugar and the Brain
Scientists now point to the consumption of sugar as one of the biggest threats to human health—and that includes mental health. Sugar and sugar additives have been linked to depression, addictive behavior, anxiety, memory loss, and cognitive ability.
According to the psychiatric researcher Malcolm Peet, there are at least two ways that sugar directly impacts mental health: “First, sugar suppresses activity of a key growth hormone in the brain called BNDF. BNDF levels are critically low in patients of both depression and schizophrenia. Second, sugar consumption triggers a cascade of chemical reactions in the body that promote chronic inflammation. In the long term, inflammation disrupts normal functioning of the immune system, which wreaks havoc on the brain and leads to a higher risk of depression.”
“Anyone who has been to a little kid’s birthday party has seen firsthand what the ‘sugar high’ and the ‘sugar crash’ look like. Now picture that in an adolescent struggling with addiction and mental health challenges.” —Dr. Rachel Fortune, Medical Director at Newport Academy
It’s About How We Eat, Not Just What We Eat
Knowing what to eat for better mental health is vital. However, it’s equally important to understand how to eat. Therefore, that means paying attention to how your food is produced, how you cook it, and how you feel when you eat it.
Know Your Food, Grow Your Food
Most Americans buy their food packaged in plastic, far removed from its original source. Creating a healthy relationship with food also involves repairing that connection. You don’t have to live on a farm to find ways to do that. Shop at a farmer’s market or grow your own herbs on a windowsill. We get the most nutrients from food that has been altered as little as possible from its original form. In conclusion, seek local, organic, and whole-food options.
“Our teen residents are intimately involved with the process of growing the food they eat, in our gardens and greenhouses. It’s the first step toward reversing a national epidemic of disconnection from the source of what we eat.”
—Jamison Monroe Jr., Newport Academy Founder and CEO
The Impact of Stress on Digestion
Stress can prevent the body from effectively digesting and using nutrients, even if you’re eating food that’s good for you. Therefore, make sure the prep time is relaxed. “Build in enough time to make sure the preparation process is pleasurable and you don’t sit down at the table feeling stressed and rushed,” says Dr. Rachel Fortune, Medical Director at Newport Academy.
“Stress inhibits and interferes with every aspect of digestive functioning and with the efficient use of nutrients. Stressed-out people can’t make very good biological use of even the most healthy diets.”—James S. Gordon, founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine and a former researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health
Finally, to help your body make the most of the nutrients you’re taking in, try this practice of mindful eating from Jeffrey Zurofsky, acclaimed restaurateur and advisor for Newport Academy’s culinary and nutrition programs. Here’s how to do it:
Mindful Eating Practice
- Once you sit down, take a minute to pause before you dig in.
- Think about where the food came from, where it grew, and who helped it get to your plate.
- Observe the colors, details, and aroma of what you’re about to eat.
- Chew each bite slowly, bringing your attention to the taste and texture of what you’re eating.
- Give thanks, verbally or internally, for the pleasure and nutrients you are receiving.
If you are in need of support don’t hesitate to reach out for professional support. You are not alone.
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