Nutrition & Teens - Are teenagers getting the nutrients they need to support their mental health?

by Sam Bourne Registered Nutritional Therapist

This subject is close to my heart, my kids are at uni and I constantly worry about their nutrition, because I know that if they feel down, depressed, stressed or panicked, what they have eaten or not eaten will, without any doubt in my mind, be affecting them. In this time of lockdowns and uncertainty, young people need more support than ever and that means their nutrition. I cannot understand why doctors, and those medical professionals that are advising government don't recognise this fact. It they did they would make nutritional therapy available on the NHS and prescribe nutrients rather than drugs!

The nutrients that a teenager consumes or doesn’t consume can have a profound influence on the way they feel, not just physical symptoms like skin issues, digestive health, energy and lowered immune resistance, but their mental health too. Good brain function needs good nutrition, mental health needs good brain function. There’s no doubt that there is a huge emotional side to mental health, but the right nutrition can make a big difference. The right nutrition also supports gut health which is intimately connected to brain function and mood. As children go into their teens, their hormones and growth changes and this makes demands on their nutrient reserves and causes changes in the gut microbiome too. Mineral deficiencies are so common in teens but go largely unrecognised like iron, magnesium, zinc and iodine. These kinds of deficiencies have a damaging effect on mental health, as do B Vitamin deficiencies. A study done at Oxford University with 196 children aged 13-16 years, were split into two groups, one group given a placebo and the other group was given nutritional supplements. The second group showed a significant improvement in behaviour. It’s almost certain that these children would have had better focus and been calmer. Here’s a shocking fact: a severe B3 deficiency in anyone can cause schizophrenia! So even a mild deficiency can have mental health effects.

So how do you convince a teenager that is living away from home, or even living at home but ‘doing their own thing’ that what they eat is vital for the way they feel?

My advice is to keep it simple, but compelling. Give them the Why, How and What:

Why? The teenage brain continues to develop long after it stops growing, the prefrontal cortex keeps developing into their mid 20s! This is the area where planning and behaviour control matures. Teen brains are more susceptible to stress and all the changes that the brain goes through at this time can trigger mental health issues. Poor diet and lack of the right nutrients can worsen anxiety, depression, lack of focus and poor memory. Junk food and excess sugar can alter brain development due to the negative effects on the gut microbiome, blood sugar and nutrient deficiencies. The microbes in the gut are a vital support to brain health, there are 1000s of species and trillions of organisms, feeding the right kinds makes a huge difference to brain health. Fibre is the simple way to encourage diversity and healthy microbes that signal correctly to the brain and produce healthy nutrients and protect against invading microbes.

How? The teenage age brain is resilient and can bounce back once care and attention is given to diet, nutrient intake and lifestyle. The high salt, high sugar, low fibre and poor fat containing foods that many teens consume in bulk can have a profoundly damaging effect on gut microbes and brain health as well as cause nutrient deficiencies that go un-noticed by doctors. Reducing ALL sugars, refined carbs, junk foods and deep-fried foods is vital, they can still eat their favourite foods in moderation, but they must include the foods the brain and gut need. Balance the foods with what the body needs, for example teens should eat at least 3 gut friendly foods, 3 brain supportive foods and 3 antioxidant foods every day if possible.

What? There are key nutrients that are vital for brain health and these can be obtained from certain healthy foods and can be boosted with food supplements like Omega3, 6 and 9 essential fatty acids (EFAs) especially fish oil, B Vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium and other trace minerals. I recommend a good Teenage multi vitamin & mineral supplement as well as fish oil or the vegan equivalent. Probiotics can be very helpful too. Dietary choices for teens should be kept simple, I have listed foods that are easy to add to dishes and to eat on their own and have long shelf life or last well in the fridge. Brain friendly foods: Fats with long shelf life: Butter, sunflower oil, olive oil, tahini (sesame seeds) nuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds and coconut oil. Tempeh and tofu. Pulses – butter beans, chickpeas, peas. Tinned or fresh salmon, mackerel, sardines. Turkey (due to tryptophan content and its mood supporting properties) Eggs (Contain choline and biotin – vital for brain health) Gut friendly foods: Fibre: Onions, broccoli, cabbage, brown rice, wholegrain pasta, oats, chickpeas, carrots and semi-ripe bananas. Probiotics: Natural live yogurt, kefir and kimchi. Garlic and dried herbs. Antioxidant foods: Apples, berries, spinach, cabbage, oranges & lemons, black grapes, aubergines, peppers, chili and tomatoes. (This includes tomatoes that are tinned, in cartons and pureed as well as hot chili sauces) You can purchase organic seeds and other healthy foods from www.buywholefoodsonline.co.uk it works out cheaper than buying in store. Exercise All developing bodies and brains need exercise. It releases hormones that support brain function and ‘happiness’. Teenagers can hugely benefit from meditative exercise like Yoga. It improves mood, physical health and reduces anxiety. All Teens tend to need more sleep, but it’s important that this is at regular times even if it’s late to bed late to rise. Older teens need to get into a more regular sleep pattern as they come the end of their physical growth. Their brains need to wake earlier and get going or they will tend to languish.

The teenage brain smoothie: 1 x semi-ripe banana Chia or flaxseeds Pumpkin seeds A handful Spinach One apple Spoonful of tahini Live yogurt Water, or organic milk or goat’s milk or oat milk


The teenage brain energy ball: Coconut oil Raisins or dates Pumpkin seeds or almonds, cashews Oats Cinnamon Cocoa powder


The teenage brain breakfast: Pancakes made with wholegrain flour, eggs, organic milk or goat’s milk or nut milk, raw dark cane sugar or honey, handful of blended oats and cinnamon. Cooked lightly and low heat in butter or coconut oil. Use chopped apples, raisins, banana or dates, instead of syrups to serve.

Teenage brain snacks: Walnuts, pumpkin seeds, almonds, dried fruit, apples, oatcakes, wholegrain bread with butter and boiled eggs.


Written for The Interschools Advertiser Magazine https://www.interschoolsadvertiser.com