Is poor diet behind the teenage mental health crisis?

Fiona Hunter, one of the UK’s leading nutritionists, takes a look at the possible correlation between the emerging mental health crisis in teenagers and how this could be linked to the lack of vital vitamins and minerals in teenagers.

This week, research found that young people aged 16 to 25 are the unhappiest generation in a decade, with one in four feeling ‘hopeless’ on a regular basis, and nearly half having experienced a mental health problem.

Eating a healthy balanced diet is not usually high up on the ‘to-do’ list for most teenagers and young adults – one reason is that they feel invincible, things like heart disease and cancer are problems that ‘old’ people need to worry about.

They feel fit and healthy and have plenty of energy so why do they worry about what they eat?

What they don’t know is that the seeds of many of the diseases that people suffer from later in life are sown early in life.

It's not common for teens to prioritize vitamins and minerals - but a nutritionist warns it could be crucial for their mental health 

It’s not common for teens to prioritize vitamins and minerals – but a nutritionist warns it could be crucial for their mental health

Indeed, autopsies carried out on soldiers, fit young men, who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, found that one in 12 showed early signs of heart disease.

Even young wellness warriors aren’t guaranteed to get all the nutrients they need from their diet – in fact many experts warn that they may have an even greater risk of deficiency because of their restrictive diets.

But do they realize what it’s doing to their mental health?

Recently published findings from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) revealed that many teenagers have shockingly low levels of several key vitamins and minerals, which say experts, may be linked with the rise in mental health problems but it also means they are storing up all sorts of health problems for later in life.

‘As the Princes Trust report highlights, emotional wellbeing is made up of a number of different factors,’ Dr Jen Nash, a clinical psychologist who specializes in food behavior and founder of Eating Blueprint, says.

‘The decrease in balanced nutrition shown on the NDNS report can only serve to influence the rise in emotional instability, given that the brain, moods and cognition are influenced by dietary factors.

‘Nutritional intake is a factor that parents have little control of outside the home, so if we can do our best to ensure our teenagers are achieving a wide range of vitamins and minerals when they are at home, all the better.

‘Schools and colleges also have an important role to play to ensure choices available are led by nutritional needs of growing bodies and minds.’

Here, I explain the issues driving poor diet and mental health, and how to get around it.

Teenagers simply not getting enough of what they need

One of the most shocking findings from the NDNS was the fact that only eight percent of young people aged between 11-18 ate the recommended five or more portions of fruit and or veg – with the average intake being a meager 2.8 portions a day.

Given the lack of fruit and veg that young people are eating it’s no surprise that NDNS also found that key nutrients found in fruit and veg like the B vitamin folate and the minerals magnesium and potassium were also low. Almost in one in three girls (28 percent) aged between 11-18 had levels of folate in their red blood cells which is indicative of a long-term deficiency of folate.

Low levels of folate and omega-3 fats, also known to be lacking in teenagers diet have also been liked with depression and other mental health problems.

Another real cause for concern is the number of young people who fail to get enough calcium in their diet.

Calcium is particularly important for children, teenagers and young adults because their bones are still growing and this is when calcium is laid down in the bones – the more calcium that is deposited in the bones while they are growing the lower the risk of osteoporosis later in life.

Osteoporosis affects one in two women and one in five men over the age of 50 in the UK but the window of opportunity of reducing the risk later in life is while the bones are still growing.

We can’t just blame sugar and obesity

The results of the NDNS make scary reading because it suggests that teenagers represent a ticking time bomb for health problems.

The scary thing is that its not simply one or two vitamins that they are missing out on it’s a whole host and this nutrient gap has been largely ignored as we focus on things like sugar, and obesity, which of course are important but we need to remember that they are only part of the picture.


In the 11-18 age group intakes of several vitamins and minerals were shockingly low, the NDNS revealed.

  • Almost one in three (28 percent) of girls and 15 percent of boys had low levels of folate
  • 16 percent of children had low levels of Vitamin A
  • One in four girls had low levels of riboflavin (vitamin B2)
  • Nearly one in two girls (48 percent) of girls had low levels of iron
  • 19 percent of girls and 12 percent of boys had low intake of calcium
  • 48 percent of girls and 27 percent of boys had a low intake of magnesium
  • 44 percent of girls and 23 percent of boys had a low intake of selenium
  • 22 percent of girls and 17 percent of boys had a low intake of zinc
  • 33 percent of girls and 15 percent of boys had a low intake of potassium
  • 10 percent of girls and 15 percent of boys had a low intake of iodine

Folate – good sources include broccoli, spinach, asparagus, chicken peas, peas, fortified breakfast cereals

Vitamin B2 – good sources include milk, dairy, eggs, fortified breakfast cereals

Iron – good sources include red meat, beans and pulses, dried fruit fortified, breakfast cereals

Calcium – good sources include milk and dairy products, almonds, broccoli

Magnesium – good sources include green leafy vegetables, nuts, wholemeal bread, brown rice

Selenium – good sources include brazil nuts, fish, meat and eggs

Zinc – good sources include meat, shellfish, cheese, wheatgerm

Potassium – good sources include fruit and vegetables, pulses, nuts and seeds

Iodine – good sources include seafish and shellfish

 How can young people eat better?

1. Don’t use snacks as substitutes for proper meals

Teenagers and young adults are a generation of grazers but it can be hard to get all the nutrients you need if you’re only eating snacks. Many snacks are high in fat, sugar and salt and short on vitamins, minerals and fiber so if you are going to snack then be snack smart – choose snacks that are fortified with and make a positive contribution to your diet.

2. Plan ahead

Teenagers tend not to be good at thinking ahead and in terms of food this means that they often end up eating on the hoof, grabbing whatever available at the time – this can be expensive and not very healthy, so plan ahead and pack a healthy snack before you leave the house

3. Don’t eat alone

If you have teenagers it importan
t to try and sit them down and eat together as a family at least a couple of times a week. Family meal provide an opportunity to talk and studies show that children who regularly eat with their families are more likely to have a healthier diet and have a higher intake of key vitamins and minerals.

4. Don’t eat the same foods every day

Variety may be the spice of life but it’s also the key to a healthy diet but its many young people get stuck a food rut eating the same few foods in a loop.

5. Don’t believe everything you read online

The internet can be a good source for learning about diet and nutrition but there’s also rubbish on line – often written by well-meaning individual but people don’t have the appropriate qualifications or experience to give advice on nutrition

6. Don’t follow to fads

It’s easy to be lured into the latest diet fad – claims made by the disciples of fads like clean eating, alkaline diets, Paleo diets all sound appealing but there’s no science to support the promised they make and they can increase the risk of deficiencies

7. Do some research

It’s OK to be vegan or vegetarian, in fact, plant based diets offer a number of health benefits, but you have to make sure you replace the nutrients you would be getting from foods like dairy and meat with other foods rich in these nutrients. Both the Vegetarian Society and the Vegan Society have very good web sites which will help you make sure your diet contains everything it should

8. Take a multivitamin and mineral

Think of it as an insurance policy – of course its better to get vitamins and minerals from your food but in certain situations and at certain times of your life it’s not always possible and as we understand more about diet and the nutritional gaps manufacturers have developed a range of products that will support teenagers from vitamins sprays, e.g. Healthspan Vitamin D3/B12 range of sprays to Gummy Multivitamins and fortified foods.

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