I recently wrote an article about how the typical teen diet can impact mental health. I realize it might have you feeling a bit nervous. (Check it out here if you haven’t read it yet.) You already have enough to worry about with raising a teenager, and now you have to worry about his diet too?
Don’t worry. It’s not as overwhelming as you think.
This article will help break it down for you.
Let’s focus on the most essential nutrients that will help keep your teen happy and healthy.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for healthy brain development. Did you know that a person’s brain does not fully develop until they are 25 years old? This means that omega-3s are essential for all teens to get every day. Omega-3s not only help with brain development, they also decrease brain inflammation that can be caused by their poor diet habits.
Omega-3s also help with mood support.
Deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to increase the risk of depression, suicidal ideation, self-harm, and anxiety. Omega-3 fatty acid deficiency has also been shown to worsen symptoms of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and autism.
So what foods are high in omega-3’s? Oily fish is the biggest one, but I’m guessing your teen probably doesn’t want to eat fish all the time. This is why a lot of people choose to supplement with a good quality fish oil. Other food sources include walnuts, flax and chia seeds, fermented soy, and egg yolks. A high quality fish oil will be tested for heavy metals, will use smaller fish (think sardines, not salmon), and will not be rancid. Usually, if a fish oil tastes or smells really fishy it probably isn’t the best. To be sure, talk to your naturopathic doctor about brands that can be trusted.
Vitamin D deficiency can also be a contributing factor to depression. This is for a variety of reasons. Vitamin D helps increase serotonin and dopamine (neurotransmitters that make you feel calm and happy) in the brain. It also increases absorption of other nutrients, which we need to generate energy and make even more of those happy chemicals. Vitamin D helps with hormone balance, which can be vital for our teens as they navigate their way through puberty. Finally, Vitamin D actually decreases inflammation which is highly associated with all mental health conditions.
Our biggest source of vitamin D comes from the sun.
However, it takes 20 minutes of unexposed skin exposure a day to produce 200 IU of vitamin D, which is far below the therapeutic level for most people. And some people are genetically predisposed to make even less!
You can get vitamin D from food sources such as fish, mushrooms, eggs, and fortified foods, but most people need supplementation. However, vitamin D supplementation is something you should always consult with your doctor about first. Vitamin D can cause toxicity in high doses, and everyone’s supplementation requirements are different.
B Vitamins & Magnesium
Deficiencies in vitamins and minerals can also contribute to mood imbalances. Specifically, B vitamins and magnesium. Deficiencies in B vitamins, especially folate and B12, can contribute to depression and other mood disorders. Dark leafy greens, chickpeas, lentils, beans, and broccoli are all good food sources of folate. B12 is mostly found in animal products, such as meat and eggs, so supplementation will be necessary if your teen follows a vegetarian or vegan diet. Like Vitamin D, some people are genetically predisposed to need different amounts of Bs, or specific forms if they are being supplemented. And contrary to what you might have heard, you won’t just pee out the B vitamins that you don’t need. Long story short – talk to your naturopathic doctor about what your teen’s needs are before hitting the vitamin shop.
Deficiencies in magnesium can lead to symptoms of anxiety, insomnia, depression, irritability, and a decreased ability to handle stress.
Magnesium rich foods include spinach, avocados, almonds, cashews, bananas, swiss chard, broccoli, sesame seeds, and even dark chocolate. So while we talked about how bad sugar is, we also know your teen is going to indulge in some way, and a little bit of dark chocolate here and there might be the best option for helping to satisfy that sweet tooth.
While it’s becoming popular to supplement with B and other single vitamins, it is better to get these nutrients from your food instead of from supplements. The biggest reason is that by just supplementing with one or two nutrients, you may be pushing biochemical pathways in the body which can result in other imbalances and might actually make you feel worse. By getting these nutrients from food, you are giving the body a synergistic blend of nutrients which provides the support and nutrition it needs. And while it’s nice to know those specific nutrient rich foods, ultimately if you eat a balanced diet full of vegetables and other whole foods, you’re on the right track.
Properly fueling your teens body can avoid many mental health challenges.
Ultimately, we can avoid a lot of depression and anxiety if we fuel our body with nutrient dense foods that nourish our brains. So if your teen (or you for that matter) is struggling with anxiety and depression, take a look at his diet first, and maybe you can avoid medications and a lot of heartache.