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How A Poor Diet Could Be Reflecting Poor Teenage Mental Health

We all know the old saying, “You are what you eat.” But just how true is it? How much can our diet really affect our lives? It turns out diet plays a pretty significant role in determining how we feel, both physically and mentally. This is especially true for teenagers.

Though a poor diet could be reflecting poor teenage mental health, it’s rarely the sole cause of depression or anxiety in teens. A poor diet can exacerbate mental health problems, but it won’t be the only thing causing those problems. If your teen son struggles with severe depression or anxiety, he needs more than just a diet change. Teens battling mental health problems often benefit from attending a residential treatment center to receive therapy and life coaching from trained counselors.

What is a healthy diet?

A healthy diet includes eating the right type of food, and the right amount of food, for our body type. Teen boys are renowned for being ravenous eaters who will blitz through all of the food in the house. Teenagers are going through puberty and will grow rapidly, so they tend to need more food than adults. While they are going through this growth phase, they’ll need more calories than they will once their metabolism slows down in adulthood.

As adults, we often wish that we still had the metabolism of a teenager. We fondly think about memories of eating as much pizza and junk food as we wanted without gaining a ton of weight. Even though teens can typically eat more junk food than adults without seeing as much weight gain, it can still have a major effect on them. Teens still need to eat a healthy diet even though their metabolism is high.

A healthy diet includes foods like:

  1. Fruit

  2. Vegetables

  3. Protein-rich foods (i.e., legumes, tofu, quinoa, etc.)

  4. Whole grains

  5. Iron-rich foods (i.e., spinach, iron-enriched cereal, plant milk)

  6. Calcium-rich foods (leafy greens, peas, beans, plant milk)

  7. Water

  8. Limited saturated fats (i.e., dairy, processed meats, junk food, etc.)

  9. Limited refined carbs and sugar

How can a poor diet affect teen mental health?

Eating too many sugary, fatty, or fried foods can drag us down both physically and mentally. Though the immediate effects may be more noticeable for adults, a poor diet takes its toll on teens as well.


This might be surprising, but sugar is addictive. Some studies have even shown that sugar can be just as addictive as cocaine. Sugar gives us a little energy boost that makes us feel good, but that energy is short-lived. When we eat sugar, we also get a little rush of dopamine — a chemical in the brain that makes us feel happy. After that initial rush, though, we crash. Then we want more sugar to make us feel good again.

The constant up and down that comes with eating sugary foods is bad for our mental health. Teens barely get enough sleep to function well throughout the school day, then they get caught up in a sugar cycle. Eating a lot of sugary foods, or drinking a lot of sugary drinks, can make kids swing between energetic and lethargic. That can really mess with their moods!

If your teen is craving sugary foods, try to get them to add more fruit to their diet. Fruits contain sugar but they also contain fiber which allows them to process the sugar properly. Foods like candy, cakes, juice, and sodas contain refined sugars which tend to be detrimental to your health unlike sugars from fruit.

Fatty Foods & Fried Foods

Fatty foods and fried foods make us feel heavy or cause an upset stomach directly after eating them, and they lead to fatty buildup over time. Many easily-accessible fried foods are also high in sodium, which can lead to bloating.

Though fried, fatty foods are easy to obtain and tend to taste pretty good, they make us feel physically slower. Over time, they can lead to consistently feeling icky and lacking energy. When teens don’t feel well and lack energy, they tend to be moodier and less willing to participate in activities that would make them happier.

Encouraging your teen to eat healthier

Your teen’s diet shouldn’t contain a lot of sugary foods or drinks, fatty food, or fried food. This eliminates many fast-food options, so you may need to teach your teen how to plan their food in advance. Teens are not always great at planning ahead, so it’s a good idea to keep some healthy snacks in the house for your teen to toss in their backpack when they’re about to leave. That way, they will always have something healthy with them in case they get hungry.

Encourage your teen to notice the differences in their moods when they eat different foods. Remember, diet goes hand-in-hand with mental health. If your teen is already having a bad day and they eat a bag of cookies to make themselves feel better, they will likely end up feeling even worse when the sugar rush ends. Likewise, if they’re having a bad day, but they decide to eat some fruit, they will still get some natural sugar from the fruit, but they won’t get that heavy crash that comes with processed food.

Some teenage mental health problems are even more directly linked with food. Eating disorders are common in both teenage girls and teenage boys. If your teen has an unhealthy relationship with food, they may purposefully starve themselves or engage in binging (eating an unhealthy amount of food all at once) or purging (throwing up after eating). Eating disorders should be taken seriously and addressed immediately.

If you are worried that your teen’s mental health is suffering based on their diet, consider seeking outside help. Many teens don’t understand the importance of eating a balanced diet and suffering because of it. At Sundance Canyon Academy, our students maintain a healthy diet and attend life-skills training sessions that include health and wellness lessons. Contact us today to find out more about our educational programs for teen boys.

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