How is Nutrition and Youth Mental Health Linked?

Healthy eating helps children and young people cope more effectively with stress, better manage their emotions and get a good sleep – all of which assist learning.

Most research about nutrition and mental health has focused on adults. We know that good nutrition is associated with better mental health outcomes, whereas a poor diet is associated with a greater risk of depression and anxiety. However, emerging research that focuses on children and young people has also found a relationship between unhealthy diets and poorer mental health outcomes.

Poor nutrition has been associated with:

  • externalising behaviour (such as hyperactivity, aggression, disobedience)
  • symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • poor concentration and tiredness, which interfere with learning
  • immune system function, which is also linked to mental health
  • delayed brain development – high-fat, high-sugar diets can affect proteins in the body that are important for brain development
  • iron deficiency, which has been linked to cognitive function impairments associated with learning and memory
  • nutrient deficiencies, which have been associated with mental health conditions including depression and anxiety (we know that fruits and vegetables, grains, fish, lean red meats and olive oils are rich in important nutrients such as folate, magnesium, vitamins and zinc which all impact on body and brain functions, including mood regulation).

Dietary habits aren’t always a choice

‘Food insecurity’ – where people don’t have enough food due to because of things such as unemployment and poverty – is also a problem for many families in Australia. Food insecurity can result in poorer academic performance, time off from school, stress, depression, anxiety, aggression, and difficulty getting along with others. Food insecurity can result in:

  • psychological stress – high levels of ongoing stress have been related to depression and delayed brain development
  • poorer academic performance
  • time off from school
  • anxiety
  • aggression
  • difficulty getting along with others.

The good news is that improving what you eat can lead to improvements in your mental health, so it’s never too late to encourage healthier eating patterns.



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