Diet And Mental Health In Teens

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Diet and Mental Health, Diets to Fight Depression, Food and Health

Is Your Teen Crazy Because Of What They Eat?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

diet mental health teensIf you have teenagers or have had teenagers in the past, you know they can be a little crazy at times. Sometimes they are a lot crazy. It’s easy to dismiss the occasional weird behavior by attributing it to raging hormones. I wouldn’t want to dismiss the difficulty teens experience adjusting to all these new hormones running around inside their body.

However, if you have a teenager, you also know their diet often isn’t the best. Many of them live on sodas, fast foods, snack foods and sweets. Could there be a correlation between what they eat and their mental health? In fact, several recent studies have suggested there is a correlation between poor diet and mental health issues in teens.

What is the connection between diet and mental health in teens?

This study (WH Oddy et al, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2018.01.002) breaks new ground.

  • The scientists in charge of the study asked whether the effect of diet on mental health was direct or indirect. Specifically, they asked whether diet influenced obesity and inflammation which, in turn, influenced mental health.
  • They also investigated a reverse hypothesis model. Specifically, they asked whether poor mental health led to poor diet rather than the other way around.

How Was This Study Done?

diet mental health teens doctorsThis study has a very interesting history. It grew out of a major pregnancy study (The Raine study) initiated in Western Australia in 1989. The Raine study was designed to determine how events during pregnancy and childhood influence health later in life. Diet and many other variables were measured during pregnancy, at birth, and at 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 10, 14, 17, 18, 20, and 22 years of age for the offspring. This particular study followed 843 teenagers who were assessed at ages 14 and 17.

Based on food frequency questionnaires administered at both ages, the participants’ diets were given a score ranging from a “Healthy” at one extreme to “Western” at the other extreme.

  • The “Westerndiet was characterized by fast foods, convenience foods, red and processed meats, full-fat dairy, French fries, refined grains, sweets, soft drinks, chips, sauces, and dressings. (Does that sound like your teen?)
  • The “Healthydiet was characterized by whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and fish. (It’s nice to know that some teens eat that way.)

In addition to diet, the scientists measured BMI (a measure of obesity) and mental health in the 14-year-old group. When those same teens reached 17, the measurements were repeated, and blood markers of inflammation were also measured.

Two assessments of mental health were used.

  • The first assessment measured depression.
  • The second assessment measured “Internalizing Behaviors” (withdrawal, depression, and anxiety) and “Externalizing Behaviors” (aggression, delinquency, and attention disorders). High scores on this test indicate a higher level of emotional and behavioral problems.

 

Diet And Mental Health In Teens

diet mental health teens choicesHere are the results of the study:

  • Adherence to a “Western” diet was associated with greater caloric intake and obesity at age 14.
  • By the time the teens reached 17, adherence to a “Western” diet was associated with:
    • Obesity and inflammation
    • Depression and other mental health issues
  • A “Healthy” diet was protective against obesity, inflammation and mental health issues.
  • Obesity and inflammation were independently associated with depression and mental health issues in the 17-year-olds.

So what was the correlation between diet and mental health in teens?

On this basis, the investigators speculated that the effect of poor diet on mental health outcomes in teens was mediated by obesity and inflammation. (That is a fancy way of saying poor diet leads to obesity and inflammation, and obesity and inflammation lead to poor mental health.) However, the authors acknowledged they could not exclude a direct effect of diet on mental health.

  • Depression at age 14 did not correlate with poor dietary patterns at age 14. Simply put, if you started with everyone who had poor dietary habits at age 14, it correlated well with depression. However, if you went in the reverse direction – if you started with everyone who was depressed at age 14, it did not correlate well with poor diet.

On this basis, the investigators concluded that the reverse model hypothesis was unlikely. In short, they concluded that a model in which poor diet leads to depression and other mental health issues in teens is much more likely than a model in which mental health issues lead to a poor diet.

 

What Does This Mean For You?

diet mental health teens vegetablesWhen you put this in the context of previous studies, it is clear that what we eat matters. More importantly, what we eat matters at every stage of life. For example:

These studies are just the tip of the iceberg. There are dozens of recent studies that come to the same conclusion. In short, a good diet can make you happier as well as healthier. Whether you are 9 months or 90 years, a good diet is just as important for your mental health as for your physical health.

As for those crazy teens of yours, you might want to encourage them to eat healthier. It may be a hard sell at first, but once they start feeling happier and calmer they may just be converts to a healthy eating plan.

Remember, there is a connection between diet and mental health in teens.

The Bottom Line:

 

A recent study followed a group of teens in Western Australia from ages 14 to 17. They compared the effect of a “Western diet” (characterized by fast foods, convenience foods, red and processed meats, full-fat dairy, French fries, refined grains, sweets, soft drinks, chips, sauces, and dressings) with a “Healthy diet” (characterized by whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and fish) on obesity, inflammation, depression, and mental health. The study found:

  • Adherence to a “Western” diet was associated with greater caloric intake and obesity at age 14.
  • By the time the teens reached 17, adherence to a “Western” diet was associated with:
    • Obesity and inflammation
    • Depression and other mental health issues
  • A “Healthy” diet was protective against obesity, inflammation and mental health issues.

This study was consistent with dozens of other studies showing that diet affects mental health at every age. These studies show a good diet can make you happier as well as healthier. Whether you are 9 months or 90 years, a good diet is just as important for your mental health as for your physical health.

As for those crazy teens of yours, you might want to encourage them to eat healthier. It may be a hard sell at first, but once they start feeling happier and calmer they may just be converts to the healthy eating plan.

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (1)

  • Bonnie Hershey

    |

    Ugh, this is so true! We have been in youth ministry for the last 15 years (and now raising teens of our own), and it seems that depression and anxiety are on the rise. This generation coming up (Gen Y) is dealing with the most anxiety of any other before them (due to our world situation), and we need to be making sure that their diets DON’T make things worse! I wish more educators and those working with teens would help by encouraging good eating/snacking…and help us educate more parents to this truth as well. What we feed our kids matters!

    Reply

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Latest Article

Are Pregnant Women and Children Dangerously Deficient in Omega-3s?

Posted August 13, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

What Is The Omega-3 Status Of The American Population?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

pregnant women omega 3 deficient fishIt is no secret that the American population is deficient in omega-3s. Numerous studies have documented that fact. There are many reasons for Americans’ low intake of omega-3s:

  • The high price of omega-3-rich fish.
  • Concerns about sustainability, heavy metal contamination, and/or PCB contamination of omega-3 rich fish.
  • Misleading headlines claiming that omega-3 supplements are worthless and may even do you harm.

Of course, the questions you are asking are probably?

  • How deficient are we?
  • Does it matter?

The latest study (M Thompson et al, Nutrients, 2019, 11: 177, doi: 10.3390/nu11010177) goes a long way towards answering those important questions.

How Was The Study Done?

scientific studyThis study used data on 45,347 Americans who participated in NHANES surveys between 2003 and 2014. (NHANES or National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys is a program run by the CDC that is designed to assess the health and nutritional status of adults and children living in the United States).

EPA and DHA intake from foods was based on the average of two 24-hour dietary recall interviews. Trained dietary interviewers collected detailed information on all foods and beverages consumed during the past 24 hours.

To assess EPA and DHA intake from supplements study participants were asked what supplements they had taken in the past 30 days, how many days out of 30 they had taken it, and the amount that was taken on those days.

 

What Is The Omega-3 Status Of The American Population?

 

omega 3 statusThe results of the NHANES surveys were shocking.

In terms of total EPA+DHA intake:

  • EPA+DHA intake across all age groups was lower than recommended.
  • Toddlers (ages 1-5), children (ages 6-11), and adolescents (ages 12-19) had lower EPA+DHA intakes than adults (ages 20-55) and seniors (ages > 55).
  • Women had lower EPA+DHA intakes than men.
  • Pregnant women and women of childbearing age did not differ in their EPA+DHA.
  • Pregnant women consumed less fish than women of childbearing age (perhaps because of concerns about heavy metal contamination).
  • Pregnant women consumed more omega-3 supplements.

In terms of EPA+DHA from supplements:

  • Less than 1% of the American population reported using omega-3 supplements.
  • The one exception was pregnant women. 7.3% of pregnant women reported taking an omega-3 supplement.
  • People taking omega-3 supplements had significantly higher EPA+DHA intake than people not taking omega-3 supplements.
  • This was also true for pregnant women. Those taking omega-3 supplements had higher EPA+DHA intake.

Of course, like any clinical study, it has strengths and weaknesses.

The biggest weakness of this study is that omega-3 intake is based on the participants recall of what they ate. The strengths of the study are its size (45,347 participants) and the fact that its estimate of omega-3 intake is consistent with several smaller studies.

 

Are Americans Deficient In Omega-3s?

 

pregnant women omega 3 deficient questionsNow we are ready to answer the questions I posed at the beginning of this article. Let’s start with the first one: “How deficient are we?”

You would think the answer to that question would be easy. It is not. This study provides a precise estimate of American’s omega-3 intake. The problem is there is no consensus as to how much omega-3s we need. There is no RDA for omega-3s.

There are, in fact, three sets of guidelines for how much omega-3s we need, and they disagree.

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations for EPA+DHA intake range from 100-150 mg/day at ages 2-4 years to 200-500 mg/day for adults.
  • The US National Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommendations for EPA+DHA intake range from 70 mg/day for ages 1-3 to 110 mg/day for adult females and 160 mg/day for adult males.
  • As if that weren’t confusing enough, an international group of experts recently convened for a “Workshop on the Essentiality of and Recommended Dietary Intakes for Omega-6 and Omega-3 Fatty Acids” (Workshop). This group recommended an EPA+DHA intake of 440 mg/day for adults and 520 mg/day for pregnant and lactating women.

Using these recommendations as guidelines, this study reported that:

  • EPA+DHA intake for children 1-5 years old was ~25% of the WHO recommendations and ~40% of IOM recommendations.
  • EPA+DHA intake for children 6-11 years old was ~27% of WHO recommendations and ~40% of IOM recommendations.
  • EPA+DHA intake for adolescents 12-19 years old was ~50% of IOM recommendations (The WHO did not have a separate category for adolescents.
  • EPA+DHA intake for adults 20-55 years old was ~30% of WHO recommendations, and ~65% of IOM recommendations.
  • EPA+DHA intake for seniors >55 years old was 38% of WHO recommendations and 82% of IOM recommendations.
  • EPA+DHA intake for pregnant women was ~20% of Workshop recommendations (The WHO and IOM did not have a separate category for pregnant women).

While the percentage deficiency varied according to the EPA+DHA guidelines used, it is clear from these results that Americans of all age groups are not getting enough omega-3s from their diet.

The authors concluded: “We found omega-3 intakes across all age groups was lower than recommended amounts.”

 

Are Pregnant Women and Young Children Dangerously Deficient In Omega-3s?

 

danger symbolWhile the authors concluded that all age groups were deficient in omega-3s, they were particularly concerned about the omega-3 deficiencies in pregnant women and young children.

The authors said: “Taken together, these findings demonstrate that low omega-3 fatty acid intake is consistent among the US population and could increase the risk for adverse health outcomes, particularly in vulnerable populations (e.g., young children and pregnant women).”

In part, the focus on young children and pregnant women was based on their very low omega-3 intake. With intakes at 20-27% of recommended levels, I would consider these groups to be dangerously deficient in omega-3s.

pregnant women omega 3 deficient pregnancyHowever, the focus on young children and pregnant women was also based on the seriousness of the adverse health outcomes associated with low omega-3 intake in these population groups. This answers the second question I posed at the beginning of this article: “Does it matter?”

According to the authors low intake of EPA and DHA during pregnancy and early childhood is associated with maternal depression, pre-term births, low birth-weight babies, increased risk of allergies and asthma, problems with learning and cognition, and other neurocognitive outcomes.

None of these associations between low omega-3 intake and adverse health outcomes have been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, but the evidence is strong enough that we should be alarmed by the very low omega-3 intake in pregnant women and young children.

There is, however, a simple solution. The authors of this study concluded: “Individuals taking EPA/DHA containing supplements had significantly elevated intake compared to individuals not taking omega-3 fatty acid-containing supplements or not reporting any supplement use.”

omega 3 supplementsThey went on to say: “As supplement use is associated with increased omega-3 intake, supplementation could be an important source of EPA/DHA, particularly for pregnant women given their lower fish consumption compared to non-pregnant women of childbearing age.”

I agree. Given the low omega-3 intake in these population group and current guidelines for omega-3 intake. I recommend:

  • Pregnant & lactating women (and women of childbearing age who might become pregnant) take an omega-3 supplement providing around 520 mg of EPA+DHA/day.
  • Young children (ages 1-5) take an omega-3 supplement providing around 100 mg of DHA/day.

Of course, this study also confirmed that Americans of all age groups are not getting enough omega-3s from their diet, and low omega-3 intake may increase the risk of heart disease. Furthermore, recent studies have shown that high purity omega-3 supplements may reduce heart disease risk.

You will find my recommendations for omega-3 supplementation for adults in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor.”

 

The Bottom Line

 

The largest study to date (45,347 participants) measured omega-3 intake for Americans of all ages and compared that to current recommendations for omega-3 intake.

The authors of the study concluded:

  • “We found omega-3 intakes across all age groups was lower than recommended amounts.”
  • “Low omega-3 fatty acid intake … could increase the risk for adverse health outcomes, particularly in vulnerable populations (e.g., young children and pregnant women.”

In part, the focus on young children and pregnant women was based on their very low omega-3 intake. With intakes at 20-27% of recommended levels, I would consider these groups to be dangerously deficient in omega-3s.

However, the focus on young children and pregnant women was also based on the seriousness of the adverse health outcomes associated with low omega-3 intake in these population groups.

  • According to the authors low intake of EPA and DHA during pregnancy and early childhood is associated with maternal depression, pre-term births, low birth-weight babies, increased risk of allergies and asthma, problems with learning and cognition, and other neurocognitive outcomes.

There is, however, a simple solution. The authors of this study also concluded:

  • “Individuals taking EPA/DHA containing supplements had significantly elevated intake compared to individuals not taking omega-3 fatty acid-containing supplements or not reporting any supplement use.”
  • “As supplement use is associated with increased omega-3 intake, supplementation could be an important source of EPA/DHA, particularly for pregnant women given their lower fish consumption compared to non-pregnant women of childbearing age.”

For more details on the study and my recommendations for omega-3 supplementation, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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