Physical health, diet, and nutrition are just a few of the many components that influence children’s mental health. The development of eating behaviors begins in the first years of a child’s life, and as they grow and advance through school, their physical, emotional, social, and mental health is in part affected by the availability, accessibility, and familiarity of healthy (or not-so-healthy, not-so-accessible) foods.
The evidence is clear: children who face food insecurities can develop mental health struggles. But those who receive positive, repeated experiences with good nutrition, a healthy diet, and exercise early and throughout their adolescent years, are more likely to enjoy positive mental health.
There is a growing emphasis on the importance of incorporating nutrition plans into mental health programs for children and teens. With growing evidence that nutrition and physical activity play a key role in mental health, researchers from Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy are beginning to understand that “diet is as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology.”
Unhealthy diets and food insecurities can cause depression, emotional challenges, and struggles with peers.
At ages 12 and 14, each additional hour of sedentary time is associated with 8–11% higher risk of depression by age 18.
Dropout rates increase among children with poorer diets and lower self-esteem.
On the contrary, research indicates that kids with healthy diets who get ample time and space for physical activity and exercise can improve their overall mental and social-emotional health.
In children ages 2–9,  healthy dietary guidelines result in better psychological well-being.
Adding just 60 minutes per day of light physical activity lowers the odds of depression at age 18 by 8–11%.
1. Overweight and Obesity
The causes of childhood obesity are complex, ranging from poor eating habits to family history and trauma. Social pressure to maintain a certain body shape also contributes to a higher risk of mental health problems.
According to the CDC, 1 in 5 children and adolescents in the US have obesity.
In teens aged 12–19, obesity prevalence is 21.2%.
The obesity prevalence for Hispanic children is 25.6%.
Worldwide rates of obesity have risen 10-fold since 1975.
2. Low Energy, Poor Focus, and Mood Swings
When diets are filled with sugars, caffeine, chemicals, and sodium, kids are left feeling tired, unfocused, and jittery, and are susceptible to sickness, which not only impacts students’ grades and performance but their behavior and moods. Moods and foods often reflect each other, and as teens develop through puberty, emotions can regulate eating, and eating can regulate emotions.
According to the Society for Neuroscience, students’ diets with high levels of saturated fats actually impair learning and memory.
Teens who eat a low-quality diet increase their chances of developing depression by 80%.
3. Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse
Types of eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, excessive exercise, and other extreme measures related to diet. In some cases, teens engaged in substance abuse also show signs of eating disorders and mental health struggles.
Roughly 3% of children ages 13-18 will be diagnosed with an eating disorder.
Eating disorders most commonly affect adolescent girls and young women susceptible to social pressure.
Students spending more time on social media or watching TV are more likely to engage in uncontrolled eating or binge eating, according to a study by UC San Francisco.
The most commonly used drug by teens restricting their diets is caffeine — due in large part to fatigue.
Teens who purge are significantly more likely to use substances like drugs or alcohol.
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