Depression is not an adults-only disease. More and more, depression and other mental health conditions are claiming child victims. We can argue that the world is a fiercer place for our children than it was for us growing up. A myriad of factors are on every hand to sabotage mental health, especially among children.
Depression is becoming more prominent among adolescents
Every time I see a minor on our list for the residential program, my heart breaks a little because of a disease robbing them of the joy of life that I believe every child deserves to experience. Hearing stories and getting to know these precious kids puts faces with statistics—statistics we at Nedley Health wish we could eradicate. And that’s why we want to bring more awareness to childhood mental health illnesses and some of the factors playing a role in these conditions.
Over 12 percent, or 3.2 million, of 12- to 17-year-olds in the United States have had at least one episode of major depression, and 2.3 million adolescents have had at least one severely impairing depressive episode. [i] Some reports show as many as 20 percent of teenagers are reporting a lifetime of depression by the end of adolescence. [ii] Unfortunately, adolescent depression affects family relationships, academic performance, teen socialization, substance abuse, psychological impairment, and most significantly, suicide. [iii]
What influences depression among teenagers?
There are numerous risk factors for depression among teenagers, such as a family history of depression, hormonal changes, social pressures, academic stress, history of abuse, substance abuse, and family circumstances (like parents divorcing, big moves). While there are many lifestyle interventions that can positively influence mental health outcomes among adults and adolescents alike, one modifiable risk factor that parents and family members can influence is diet.
What about diet and depression?
As we see among adults, there is also an association between diet quality and mental health among children and teenagers. Unhealthy diets are associated with poorer mental health while higher quality diets are correlated with better mental health outcomes. [iv] Unhealthy or poor diets refer to many aspects of the typical western diet, including sugar-sweetened beverages, refined, processed grains, confectionaries, fast food, large quantities of meat, and lots of fat.
When adolescents are depressed, they are less like to follow healthy habits that will reduce depressive symptoms. Parents and guardians have the opportunity of patterning and teaching children how to make smart dietary choices at home that will improve mental capacities and mood. Let’s look at the nutrients children need to combat depression.
Key nutrients for peak mental performance
Tryptophan: serotonin’s building block
Our bodies need the amino acid tryptophan to create the important neurotransmitter serotonin. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression and other mood disorders. It is therefore important to get enough tryptophan in our diets and brain to experience the positive mental health benefits of serotonin (like a stabilized mood and happiness). Choose foods for your child rich in tryptophan, such as oats, tofu, flax seed, walnuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, chia seeds, seaweed, and pumpkin seeds. This special nutrient is not able to get into the brain without carbohydrates, so it’s important that your youth is getting healthy complex-carbs (not pop-tarts, but rather multigrain or whole grain bread). Tryptophan, along with carbohydrates, then can be taken up into the brain and used to naturally create serotonin.
How to get your kids to eat these foods: Seeds and nuts blend up nicely in smoothies (and cocoa powder can cover color, especially when you add spinach), tofu can be used as a delicious alterative to scrambled eggs, and even added to baked goods as an egg substitute. Healthy trail mix can be made quickly at home by mixing nuts and seeds with whole-grain cheerios, Chex cereals, and raisins. Costco sells small seaweed packets – send your kid off to school with seaweed and cooked brown rice for some quick-and-easy sushi.
Tyrosine: dopamine’s building block
Tyrosine is another important amino acid used by the brain to create dopamine. Tyrosine helps improve stress, fatigue, sleepiness, and mood. To get across the blood-brain-barrier, carbohydrates are imperative. Avoid refined sugars, baked goods, and white bread – these carbs cause a blood-sugar spike and subsequent drop. Complex carbs provide extra nutrients while buffering the natural sugars with fiber to keep blood sugars more even during digestion. Here are foods rich in tyrosine: mustard greens, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds, green soybeans, tofu, sundried tomatoes, watermelon, sweet potatoes, and seaweed.
Other important nutrients
These nutrients are each important for different biochemical processes needed by the brain and body for combating depressive symptoms and improving mental health. The list of plant-based foods containing these nutrients are good options, but not an exhaustive list.
- Folate: black-eyed peas, lentils, black beans, asparagus, mustard greens, and spinach
- Iron: Seaweed, spinach, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and wheat germ
- B vitamins: leafy green vegetables, nutritional yeast, enriched plant-based milk products, legumes, sunflower seeds, oranges, avocados, edamame, and mushrooms
- Omega-3 (plant-based to avoid heavy metals from seafood): flax, chia, walnuts, green soybeans, pecans, avocados, blueberries
Our bodies absorb nutrients best through the foods that we eat. That’s why learning to incorporate foods rich in brain-enhancing nutrients will improve the mental health of the entire family!
Setting your child up for dietary success looks a bit different for each child, but here are some recommendations you can implement as you find what’s best for your family. I consulted teen-mom and registered dietician Tami Bivens as I investigated practical ways to for adolescents and teens to eat nutrient-rich diets to combat depression and strive for peak-mental performance.
- Fill the cupboards with healthy options. Teens usually eat the foods found around the house, so fill your pantry with healthy choices. Don’t buy and bring home the foods you don’t want your kids to eat.
- Eat more fresh veggies and fruit. Clean and prepare veggies to pair with hummus – quick and healthy snacks. Put veggie sticks in water to keep fresh. Put fruit in a bowl in the kitchen. Invest in a quality blender to make smoothies for a great way to get nutrients. Erica Nedley’s Brighten Up Breakfast cookbook has delicious smoothie recipes designed for brain health.
- Eat at regular times, but don’t force your teenager to do so
- Do not use food as a control mechanism
- Eat breakfast every day
- Model healthy eating patterns as adults (your kids are watching you)
- Ask your children to help pick and prepare meals with you – make meals they like
- Start talking about learning how to read food labels and how to make healthy food selections from nutritional values (high fat, low fat, high fiber, sodium, calcium, iron, fortified foods, saturated fat, etc.). Let them learn along with you if this is new to you. Learn more about healthy eating and label reading here.
- Keep junk food out of the house
- Find tasty brown bread your kids love and enjoy with toasted, unsweetened nut butters, etc.
- Eat less processed foods
- Show your teenagers what serving sizes look like measured out
- Eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages except for special occasions
- Drink vegetable-pressed juices to increase vegetable intake
- Be careful to not place too much focus on weight or body image, but talk about health holistically (eating for our brains and bodies). Children can be susceptible in teen years to eating disorders, be mindful of why you are emphasizing a high-quality diet. If you suspect or have a child with an eating disorder, consult professional counsel.
- Make salads your children love
- Encourage your teen to choose at least one serving a day of a food containing tryptophan or tyrosine
- Keep your meals simple – there’s no need for gourmet meals
Tami pointed out the reality of parenting teens, “Once your teens have a car and money, they are free to go and get whatever food and drink they want. So, make the most when they are at home with healthy foods they will enjoy.” I hope our list from Nedley Health is a start to ways you can incorporate brain-boosting nutrition practically into your family’s routine.
Now is the perfect time to improve mental health through changing diet! Mentally and physically, eating a delicious plant-based diet rich in a wide-variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, grains, and nuts is a recipe for combatting depression and boosting mental performance. A lot goes on in the teenage years, and a nutrient-rich, quality diet is one significant factor that can help set your child up for success right now and down the road.
You or your teen may want to learn more. One third of the content of Optimize Your Brain ONLINE is about nutrition and is designed for ages 12+. Check out past articles on nutrition to practically implement as much as you can into your lifestyle.
Please contact us first before publishing this or other Let’s Talk Mental Health articles.
[i] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). NIMH "Major Depression". National Institute of Mental Health.
[ii] Zuckerbrot, R. A., & Jensen, P. S. (2006). Improving recognition of adolescent depression in primary care. Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine, 160(7), 694–704.
[iii] Bansal, V., Goyal, S., & Srivastava, K. (2009). Study of prevalence of depression in adolescent students of a public school. Industrial psychiatry journal, 18(1), 43–46.
[iv] O'Neil, A., Quirk, S. E., Housden, S., et al (2014). Relationship between diet and mental health in children and adolescents: a systematic review. American journal of public health, 104(10), e31–e42.