Can a Poor Diet Predict Mental Illness?

Food is so much more than gaining energy to get through the day. Many see food as an experience: some see cooking as therapeutic, eating with others as a way to deepen relationships, and taking photos of their food and posting them as a hobby. This doesn’t even account for how good food can taste, given the variety in cuisine and combinations.

Because of its importance and presence, especially for adolescents as they enter a rapidly developing stage in their lives, food can also be a huge influence in other parts of our lives. Studies are starting to look at the relationship between food and mental health, seeing how one’s diet and what they eat can affect or even influence the presence of mental illnesses.

One recent article explored this, focusing on a poor diet, and particularly how sugar can impact a teenager’s mental health. In it, they explained the results of a study that showed that men who consumed 67 grams of sugar a day were 23% more likely to be diagnosed with depression than those who ate under 40 grams, as well as how teenage girls who consumed fast and processed food were associated with a higher risk of depression. These sorts of results can have a huge impact on adolescents in general, not just because they’re more at risk for mental illnesses, but youths are often the key demographic when it comes to marketing. The bright colors and cartoonish imagery in advertisements for sodas, sugary cereals, and processed snacks are meant to target those who are younger.

brain-1787622_1920Another study back in 2014 also looked into previous research to see if there was any overlap between a poor diet and mental health in children and adolescents. While not as strong, the results were still similar, the relationship was still there. This study went into more detail as to why this relationship exists, giving one example that the nutrients found in healthier food, such as magnesium and zinc was inversely associated with depressive disorders. This means that those nutrients were less likely to be consumed by those who have depressive disorders. Another explanation says that high-fat and high-sugar diets can negatively affect proteins that play a huge role in brain development. This sort of impact can affect how our brain processes things, and therefore can make people more susceptible to mental illnesses.

With this information, we must also keep in mind that some don’t have a choice in their diets. Eating healthy can be a privilege given the costs of organic products and food alternatives, as well as the accessibility and location of certain grocery stores and restaurants. Depression can influence how much and when we want to eat, and some may eat more as a coping mechanism when they’re anxious. Though studies have shown a link between mental health and a poor diet, there are still so many factors to consider as to why there is such a connection.


How do you think what you eat affects your mental health? Do you think your mental health affects what you eat? How do you think that changing one’s diet can impact their mental health? Let us know below!

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Hi! The moderator is a research team member with a background in behavioral health. We're here to help answer your questions and stimulate some great conversation! We don't provide therapy and are not available 24-7 so please if you are in crisis, go to our crisis page: https://sova.pitt.edu/i-need-help-now We look forward to talking to you!

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