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Food and Mood: Teen Nutrition and Mental Health

Reading Time: 7 minutes

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.

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.
Newport Academy Empowering Teens Resources Nutrition Mental Health Diet

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.

Newport Academy Empowering Teens Resources Nutrition Mental Health Food Impacts Depression

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. Incorporating omega-3 acids and amino acid into their diet can significantly improve teen nutrition and combat depression.

Healthy sources of omega-3 fatty acids 

  • Salmon, sardines, and anchovies
  • Walnuts
  • 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
  • Seaweed
  • Beets
  • Artichokes
  • Spinach
  • Bananas
  • 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.

Vitamin D 

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
  • Sardines
  • 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.

Newport Academy Empowering Teens Resources Nutrition Mental Health Vitamins Vegetables

Good food sources for B vitamins include the following:

  • Dark leafy greens (turnip greens, Swiss chard, mustard greens, collards, spinach)
  • Bell peppers
  • Mushrooms
  • Cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts)
  • Tomatoes
  • Pineapple
  • Venison
  • Wild-caught fish
  • Low-fast dairy products
  • Organic, free-range eggs.

Folic Acid 

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
  • Nuts
  • Sprouts
  • 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:

  • Seaweed
  • Beans
  • Leafy greens.

Sugar and the Brain 

The addictiveness of sugar can follow adolescents as they develop and have an adverse effect on teen nutrition levels. 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 depressionaddictive behavioranxietymemory loss, and cognitive ability.

Newport Academy Empowering Teens Resources Teen Nutrition Sugar Natural Whole Foods

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.”

Read “What Sugar is Really Doing to Your Brain and Body.” 

“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.

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.

Newport Academy Empowering Teens Resources Teen Nutrition Mindful Eating

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 

  1. Once you sit down, take a minute to pause before you dig in.
  2. Think about where the food came from, where it grew, and who helped it get to your plate.
  3. Observe the colors, details, and aroma of what you’re about to eat.
  4. Chew each bite slowly, bringing your attention to the taste and texture of what you’re eating.
  5. 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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