As teenagers face challenges associated with their developmental growth and life changes, eating a nutrient-dense diet becomes a priority. “Nutrient-dense” refers to foods that provide more nutrients — such as vitamins and minerals — in one serving.
Prioritizing these foods is vital not solely for physical health, but also for maintaining good mental health. Evidence suggests that what teens eat can significantly impact their developing brains, and it allows them to unlock their full potential.
Nutrients That are Important for Teen Mental Health
Certain nutrients are particularly important for supporting mental health in teenagers [*]. Though research links omega-3 fatty acids in fish, olive oil, and nuts to reducing the risk of mood issues and promoting better brain wellness — these nourishing fats are also tied to enhanced neurological performance.
Amino acids, which can be consumed from complete proteins, are the fundamental building blocks that make up the proteins throughout the body. They play a role in the formation of neurotransmitters within the brain and central nervous system [*]. Neurotransmitters affect mood — for example, the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps you feel emotionally stable and happier.
Whole foods containing complex carbohydrates are also sources of vitamins, such as iron and potassium. Some of these foods also promote vitamin D production, which is linked to enhanced mood and a reduced risk of depression.
Healthy Fats Like Omega-3s
Essential for cognitive performance and potentially mitigating symptoms of depression and anxiety, omega-3 fatty acids are present in seafood, flaxseeds, and walnuts [*]. When it comes to supplementation, fish oil and krill oil are popular options.
Needed for bone health, vitamin D also plays a role in regulating mood. Exposure to sunlight and consumption of vitamin D-rich foods, such as fortified dairy products and fatty fish (like sockeye salmon) are essential.
Certain B vitamins, namely B6, folate, and B12, play an indispensable role in synthesizing neurotransmitters which, in turn, help to regulate mood and lessen vulnerability to depression, according to experts.
Iron deficiency has the potential to induce fatigue and cognitive impairment in teens, compromising their capacity to focus and perform at their highest level. Whole foods that are high in iron include spinach, organ meats, turkey, and pumpkin seeds.
Signs That Your Teen's Mental Health May Be Affected by Their Diet
As a parent, it’s important to be able to tell that your teen’s diet is affecting their mental health. This allows for early intervention. Watch out for the signs listed below as these could signify nutritional deficiencies:
- Low energy levels or fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Poor academic performance
- Irritability and mood swings
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Withdrawal from social activities
Common Mental Health Issues Related to Poor Nutrition For Teens
Before we dive into some of the mental health issues that may be caused by nutritional deficiencies, keep in mind that nutrition is only one factor that affects a teen’s mental health. Other factors include parenting, bullying, peer pressure, an illness, and the loss of a loved one.
Anxiety and Stress
Research has consistently demonstrated the relationship between a diet that’s high in added sugars and deficient in essential nutrients.
For example, a 2022 study involving 1,311 children and adolescents found that higher consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is positively associated with mental health problems. This also applies to kids and adolescents who already have high body fat and are consuming these beverages [*].
By thoughtfully including nutrient-dense choices abundant in omega-3 fatty acids from fish along with protein-rich foods in one's diet, one not only addresses nutritional needs but can improve their mood and emotional wellness.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as omega-3s, cannot be produced by your body. This means you need to get them from food or through supplementation. Research shows that consuming low levels of omega-3s is associated with an episode of major depression [*].
Mood Swings and Low Self-Esteem
Dietary habits that induce fluctuations in blood glucose can potentially cause shifts in mood among adolescents. These erratic emotional states may negatively influence how teens perceive themselves and navigate social situations.
Foods that lead to blood glucose swings are those high in refined carbs, such as white rice, white bread, candies, cookies, and soda. Teens should avoid them or limit their intake.
Tips to Improve Your Teen's Mental Health with Healthy Foods
By understanding potential issues that could arise from poor nutrition, we can better support teens in cultivating healthier habits. Below are lifestyle strategies to boost their mental health:
- Encourage your teen to eat foods from various food groups. Examples are fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, nuts, and seeds.
- Pair a healthy diet with physical activity. Exercise can help manage depression. Here’s a worksheet with different types of exercises for your teen to choose from.
- You can also teach your teen to read the nutrition facts label on food packaging. This empowers them to make good decisions when buying food outside.
- Remind them to stay hydrated. Besides water, teens can have electrolyte drinks, especially when they play sports.
- Help them foster a positive relationship with food by teaching them that food energizes them and supports their mental abilities, rather than simply being a source of comfort.
- If you’re concerned about their mental health, seek professional advice. Registered dieticians and therapists can offer personalized support.
Healthy Eating is One of the Keys To Happier Teens
Follow these tips and help your adolescent lay a foundation for lifelong well-being, allowing them to navigate life’s challenges with resilience. As a caring adult, remember that you play an important role in helping them build a healthier and successful future.
We also invite you to check out more self-care resources, including worksheets and handouts, for kids and teens on this page.
- Take charge of your health: a guide for teenagers. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
- Professional CCM. Amino acids. Cleveland Clinic.
- Wani AL, Bhat SA, Ara A. Omega-3 fatty acids and the treatment of depression: a review of scientific evidence. Integr Med Res. 2015 Sep.
- Liu J, Chen T, Chen M, et al. Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Depressive and Social Anxiety Symptoms Among Children and Adolescents Aged 7-17 Years, Stratified by Body Composition. Front Nutr. 2022 May 23.
- Zielińska M, Łuszczki E, Dereń K. Dietary Nutrient Deficiencies and Risk of Depression (Review Article 2018-2023). Nutrients. 2023 May 23.