Long Read: How the Food We Eat is Connected to Mood and Mental Health

Article by Nicola Fowler April 27, 2018
How does the food we eat affect our mental health?

10% of young people in the UK suffer from mental health issues. Could our teenagers’ unhealthy eating habits be contributing to high rates of depression and anxiety? Nicola Fowler, student in Human Nutrition at Bath Spa University, looks at the connections between our food and our mood.

It may come as no surprise to learn that the daily diets of Britain’s teenagers are far from perfect. Hardly a week goes by without reports of young people who are overweight or obese: one quarter of those aged 13-15 now fit into this category. Our concern is usually focused on the physical damage being inflicted on their bodies. However, a look at the deficiencies in their diets reveals that their mental health may be suffering too.

Facts are stubborn things

Is it just coincidence that levels of depression and anxiety among British teenagers have gone up while the quality of their diets has gone down? The charity Young Minds states that 850,000 children aged sixteen or under have mental health problems, with around 300,000 suffering from  anxiety and 80,000 diagnosed with severe depression. While there may be many contributing factors, recent research seems to indicate that diet could play a large part.  

By 2020 depression will be the second leading contributor to disability worldwide.

The National Diet and Nutrition Survey, carried out annually by Public Health England, reports that young people — especially girls — aged 11-18 have the worst diets of all age groups. Fruit and vegetable consumption is particularly low. As a result, vitamins and minerals that are essential for the proper development, maintenance and functioning of the brain are also lacking.

Ditch fast-food outlets and cook your own meals from scratch, if you can!

© Christopher Flowers, Unsplash

Stick to your five-a-day

The teenage years are ones of rapid change, both physical and psychological. It is often the time when mental health disorders first become apparent. Several studies suggest that adolescence is a critical time for the maturation of certain important brain functions, and inadequate nutrition during these years can be detrimental.

Research has shown that many people diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders are deficient in a variety of nutrients, and malnutrition is now recognised as a key contributor to these conditions. Fruits and vegetables help by providing the antioxidant vitamins A, C and E which can stabilise potentially brain-damaging free radicals. But only 8% of 11-18 year olds are eating the recommended five-a-day; on average, they are managing a little over half that amount.

A study found that diets high in ‘added sugars’ were strongly associated with increased incidence of depression… foods that contain naturally-occurring sugars were associated with a lower risk.

Omega-3 fatty acids are currently the focus of much research into brain development and function, with a growing body of evidence to suggest that they can support your mental health your entire life. These polyunsaturated fatty acids (or PUFAs) are major structural components of brain cells and are vital for the initial development of the brain. The main source of Omega-3 fatty acids is oily fish, and the recommendation is to include at least one portion in the diet per week. But, teenage diets are sadly lacking: current research shows that, on average, they are consuming just one portion of oily fish per month.

Choose fruit instead of a fatty fast-food snack.

© Jakub Kapusnak, Unsplash

It isn’t just what is being left off the menu that is having such a detrimental effect on the mental wellbeing of teenagers. Equally important are the types of foods being eaten instead. One piece of research looked at depression in women and its relationship with foods that are high in glucose or that are quickly converted to glucose. The study found that diets high in ‘added sugars’ and refined grains were strongly associated with increased incidence of depression. However, foods that contain naturally-occurring sugars, such as lactose in dairy and fructose in fruit, were associated with a lower risk of depression.

The ‘diet’ for mental health

So, what is the optimal diet for promoting good mental health in teenagers? Experts believe that following the much-vaunted Mediterranean diet could offer the best solution.

People who live around the Mediterranean traditionally have diets based on vegetables, fruits, beans and pulses, whole grains, fish and olive oil. They also have a low consumption of red meat, processed foods and vegetable oils. Many studies show that this diet protects against a range of physical health problems such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes and some cancers, but recent research suggests that these foods may be good for mental health too.

Pick up a healthy cookbook to find quick and easy meals without all the fat.

© Brooke Lark, Unsplash

It is evident that something needs to be done. The World Health Organisation is predicting that, by 2020, depression will be the second leading contributor to disability worldwide, and by 2030 it is expected to be the leading burden on society. Many teenagers who develop mental health  problems will continue to suffer from the consequences throughout their lives as they struggle to hold down jobs, maintain relationships and take an active part in society.

Of course, there are many aspects of modern life that could be blamed for the rising incidence of depression and anxiety among young people, and diet is only one of them. But it is one we can do something about. It shouldn’t be difficult to provide teenagers with the knowledge to understand what constitutes a healthy diet, and to ensure they have access to good food. Addressing unhealthy eating habits during the teenage years could make the difference between a lifetime of good mental health, or a bleak, unfulfilled future. Can we really afford to ignore this problem any longer?

Have you noticed any correlation between your diet and your mental health? Perhaps you’re thinking of changing to a better diet? We’d love to know your thoughts on this over on our social media.

You may also like