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Teen Diet and Mental Health

Taco bell, pizza, french fries, chips, soda…delicious, nutritious (?) .... and familiar? If you know teenagers, or were one yourself, this diet was probably pretty standard. Not only does fast food taste good, but as a teenager it’s part of the social norm. We’ve all eaten it, and have come out relatively unscathed.

But as a parent, is this standard teenage diet something you should be worried about? It’s just kids being kids right? Busy schedules don’t allow for much other than fast food and teens have the metabolism to deal with a few extra calories. Right?

Wrong.

We are now learning that nutrient poor diets increase the risk of mental health disorders in adolescents.

Below are links to some articles if you would like to learn more.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4167107/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4173131/

Before we talk about the diet and what it does to anyone’s brain, we need to set the stage for teenagers. Yes, your teen may have reached their adult height. But even if their body has stopped growing, their brain hasn’t. In general, our brains aren’t fully developed until we are 25 years old. This means your teen still has a lot growing to do when it comes to nervous system function as well as emotional regulation.

So poor diet along with changing bodies and brains, social stress, peer pressure, hormone changes………..it’s a perfect storm. If you read my article on early detection of mental health in teens, you might remember the statistic that currently 1 out of 5 teenagers suffers with a mental health disorder. (you can check out the article here: https://www.drrozelle.com/post/early-detection-of-mental-health-disorders-is-essential if you would like). And that’s just mental health disorders that are diagnosed and reported. The actual number is probably higher than that. So let’s start thinking about how we can reduce that number. And diet is a good place to start.

Diet is critical to maintaining mental and overall health. This is especially true of teenagers whose bodies and brains are still developing. Adolescence is one of the biggest periods of growth for children, and actually requires the highest caloric intake during a person’s life. The key thing to remember is not all calories are created equal. Unfortunately, most teenagers are not getting the adequate nutrition that they need. A typical teenage diet is very low in fruits and vegetables, low in healthy fats, and high in sugar and inflammatory foods.

How do these foods actually affect your child’s mood?

Let’s start with sugar. Highly processed fast food is filled with the stuff. High sugar diets increase your child’s risk for developing depression and can worsen symptoms of schizophrenia. Sugar causes inflammation and suppresses the activity of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), that's the protein your brain needs to grow cells and develop. Low levels of BDNF are associated with both depression and schizophrenia. There is also a strong connection between inflammation and mental health disorders. So sugar appears to be a double whammy for worsening these two conditions. But it’s not just depression and schizophrenia. Too much sugar can also make feelings of anxiety worse. Lastly, and absolutely not least, sugar fueled inflammation can reduce your teen’s ability to handle stress. In and of itself stress is bad, but couple it with your child still learning how to handle social and environmental stresses when they are at an all time high (ie. high school), and you have a recipe for disaster.

Second, let’s talk about trans fats. Trans fats are mostly found in processed foods. Your most common culprits are fried foods, packaged cookies, cakes, doughnuts, microwave popcorn, corn dogs, and frozen pizza. All the teenage favorites. Diets high in trans fats greatly increase the risk factors for developing depression. They do this by inserting themselves into your cells in a way that reduces their fluidity, or ability to move and adapt. They also cause inflammation. This in turn affects the way your cell membranes function and talk to each other, including the cells of the nervous system. When your cells can’t communicate properly you can end up with a whole host of problems, including anxiety and depression.

When your kid is eating a diet high in trans fats it is ALWAYS (not usually, but always), low in omega-3s. Omega-3s are called essential fatty acids (EFAs) because we can’t make them on our own, we have to consume them. I like to think of them as essential for your brain, because everything that trans fats do to harm your brain, EFAs do the opposite. They reduce inflammation and can actually help protect and repair the cells of the nervous system.

So when you have a diet that is high in trans fats and low in essential fatty acids and nutrients, it’s kind of a shock that not every teenager has a mental health condition!

There is good news! These dietary problems can be fixed. Just as poor diets are linked to increased risk of mental health disorders, healthy diets are effective at reducing those risk factors.

Stay tuned for part 2 where I talk about specific nutrients that can help reduce the risk of your child developing a mental health challenge, or improve her symptoms if she already has one.

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