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What to Know About Dieting and Mental Health in Teens

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 29, 2021

No matter what your age, there is scientific evidence to suggest that what food you eat significantly impacts your mood. This is especially true for younger people and teenagers since their bodies are still developing.

Overeating too much or eating unhealthy foods can result in obesity and depression. However, eating too little or eating food that does not correctly nourish teens can lead to disordered eating. Teenagers are the most at-risk age for eating disorders.

Adolescence not only marks the beginning of someone’s adulthood, but it is also a significant moment for teens to develop healthy choices in their life. Understanding what those healthy choices are, how to develop good food habits, and what a good diet looks like are important in the short term, but also for someone’s whole life. This is true physically and mentally. 

Impact of Diet on Teens’ Mental Health

A recent study from the University of Minnesota attempted to measure the connection between mental well-being and food habits in teens. It found that teens with more awareness of their body’s responses to food were less likely to develop a number of problems including:

  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem 
  • Dissatisfaction with their bodies
  • Attempts at extreme weight control 
  • Binge eating as an adult

Continued

It is important for teens to understand that food equals energy. The food you eat gives you the battery power to think, move, grow, and generally exist. The amount of food or calories that are healthy for you to eat depends on your age, height, and activity level. It can change from day-to-day, especially if you are still growing.

Some teens may want to diet and limit the amount of food they eat in order to lose weight. This can be dangerous if it limits foods that are necessary for development and daily fuel. Fasting or heavily dieting also greatly impacts your mood in negative ways. 

Additionally, some teens resort to smoking, making themselves vomit, or using diet pills to lose weight. Doing all of those things is very serious and not only impacts your mental health but your physical health, as well. If you are a teen and you think you need to lose weight, make sure to talk to your doctor or a dietitian so that you can create a healthy plan together. 

Making Healthy Food Choices

Eating the proper amount of food is important for good mental health, but eating nutritious food is also important. Try to avoid food high in sugar, salt, and oils. Focus on eating fruit, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat protein, and low-fat dairy. 

Fruits and Vegetables. A good rule of thumb is to fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables. The more colors from these fruits and veggies, the better. 

Grains. Healthy grains include things like whole-wheat bread, brown rice, oatmeal, and whole-grain cereal. 

Protein. Look for meats low in fat like turkey, chicken, or seafood. Other options for protein include egg whites, beans, nuts, or tofu. 

Fat. Fats are essential for teens to eat as they help your body grow. However, some fats are better for you than other others. Foods with healthy oils include avocados, olives, nuts, seeds, and certain kinds of seafood. Try and avoid solid fats like butter or lard that become solid at room temperature. Foods like fried chicken, fries, and cheese are okay to eat in moderation, but they have unhealthy fats, as well. 

It is also generally best to avoid processed food. This means foods that are packaged or canned. Usually, these foods have more salt and additives that are not as healthy as simply making that same food at your house. 

Developing Healthy Habits Around Meals

Skipping meals is a sure-fire way for a teenager's diet to negatively impact mental health. It is necessary that you stay healthy by eating regular meals. 

Eat breakfast. Breakfast helps to kickstart your day and gets you off on a great foot. Even just grabbing an apple or a banana on the way to school can make a world of difference.

Packing your lunch for school. Planning and making a lunch the night before school or in the morning helps you control your food choices. It can also make you more likely to eat it because you made it yourself.

Family dinner. Home-cooked meals are always healthier than eating dinner out. Eating dinner at night with your family is also a fun and connective experience

Participate in the shopping. Planning and preparing healthy meals with your family helps you make healthy choices. It also allows you to eat foods you find delicious. You can help your family make healthy food choices, too! 

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Mental Health Foundation: “Diet and mental health.”

National Alliance on Mental Illness: “Eating Disorders: What to Do When Your Teenager Is at Risk.”

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Take charge of Your Health: A Guide for Teenagers.”

University of Minnesota: “Intuitive eating during teenage years linked to better mental health and eating behaviors in adulthood.”

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