While the pandemic has led to a significant increase in anxiety and depression that is directly related to grief, loss, and isolation, poor diet is also responsible for teens’ declining mental health. With remote schooling, reduced in-person socializing, and more time online, teens are getting less physical exercise and eating more unhealthy snacks.
Additionally, stress and fear are known to increase cravings for junk food. Over time, elevated levels of cortisol, “the stress hormone,” increase appetite, specifically the urge to eat foods that are high in sugar—which are particularly detrimental for well-being.
Pandemic-Related Changes in Teen Diet
Diet and food access changed significantly last year as a result of stay-at-home guidelines, with more limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Children and teens staying at home began to eat less nutritious meals and snack more in between meals. The snacks typically contained higher amounts of salty, sweet, and high-carb foods due to food availability changes and less frequent shopping trips. Socioeconomic factors played a role as well, as families whose income changed were forced to buy less expensive foods with lower nutritional value.
A study published in August 2020 examined the health repercussions of COVID-19 for children and adolescents, including the increased risks for obesity and other health conditions. Negative changes in both diet and exercise showed a significant increase in obesity, even in such a short time. The study noted an increase in consumption of chips, sugary drinks, and red meat, combined with a decrease by at least 2.5 hours of exercise, in addition to a sharp increase in excessive screen time and sleep time.
Risks Associated with Lack of Physical Activity and Mental Health
The health risks associated with poor diet are multiplied when they go hand in hand with less physical activity. According to an August 2020 report published by Psychiatry Research, pandemic-related school closures have directly affected 91 percent of the world’s student population. As a result, adolescents experienced a significant drop in their daily physical activity levels, merely by staying home instead of going to school.
The lack of available recreation and sports activities further decreased young people’s opportunities for exercise, along with the closures of parks and public recreational facilities. This translated to an immediate uptick in sedentary behavior, with more teens sitting and engaging in excessive screen time for both school and entertainment.
When teens are physically active, their mental health improves, in part because their brains produce more endorphins, which are associated with positive mood. When physical activity decreases, not only is the release of endorphins reduced, but the serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine levels are affected as well. Change in these mood-influencing hormones can catalyze or exacerbate depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.
Why Poor Diet Affects Teen Mental Health
The correlation between mental health and diet is of increasing concern in the medical field, as reported in the American Journal of Public Health. This review study cited “a significant, cross-sectional relationship between unhealthy dietary patterns and poorer mental health in children and adolescents.” Research also validates that eating well boosts mood: One study with young adults found that eating more fruits and vegetables led to feelings of greater flourishing, meaning, and purpose.
The specific causes of the relationship between poor diet and mental health conditions include the impact of diet on the immune system, as well as the body’s production of specific proteins that influence brain development. Depression, in particular, is most commonly associated with poor diet in children and adolescents. Just as the body functions better with proper nutrients and exercise, the brain also needs these things to function and develop in healthy ways.
At Newport Academy, we believe “the meal is medicine.” Not only what we eat, but also how it is sourced, prepared, and consumed, have the potential to impact our well-being. Therefore, healthy nutrition and mindful eating habits are essential parts of our integrative model of teen treatment. Learn more about the Newport Academy approach to nutrition.
Healing Teens With COVID-19 Mental and Physical Health Problems
With vaccines slowly becoming available and the promise of more opportunities for increased nutrition and exercise for our nation’s youth, we must take steps now to repair the damage that has been done to the health and well-being of this demographic.
With suicide risk at all-time highs, it is critical for teens who are struggling to receive appropriate mental health treatment. Improving diet and exercise habits will help, but trauma, depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions require professional treatment in combination with lifestyle changes. As the world begins healing from COVID-19, we must support our young people to heal as well.
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