Teenagers who eat the standard Western diet found to have increased risk of mental health challenges

The notion that the Western diet is not ideal is nothing new; the “standard” dietary habits in the U.S. and other westernized nations have been linked to major diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and more. But new research has shown that for teenagers in particular, the average American diet could be an even stronger recipe for disaster – especially when it comes to their mental health.

While it’s already been fairly well established that being obese or overweight can increase the risk of depression in teens, budding research from the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania has shown that there is a biological pathway linking poor diet and inflammation to depression. This can spell bad news for teenagers.

The connection between diet, depression and teens

Professor Wendy Oddy, hailing from the Menzies Institute, pioneered this ground-breaking research. Along with her team, they found that diet can influence teens’ risk of depression and other related mental health issues. While past research has shown that having an overweight or obese BMI can increase the risk of depression in youth, this study has highlighted the fact that diet can also play a substantial role in risk.

As sources report, the research team found that the typical Western diet – filled with red meats, processed foods and sugar – contributed to depression in more ways than one. While a Western diet can increase the risk of being overweight or obese, and indirectly also increase the risk of depression, the team found that diet’s role in depression can also stem from inflammation. In other words, diet appears to be an independent risk factor for depression, regardless of weight.

Oddy and her team of scientists used data from thousands of adolescents collected under the Raine Study. For their own research, Oddy’s team looked at data from 1600 children surveyed at age 14, and 1,000 teens who were surveyed again at age 17.

After analyzing the childrens’ diets and grouping their dietary habits as “Healthy” or “Western,” the team found that there were clear indications that diet had an impact on mental health in teens.

In their conclusion, the study authors wrote, “A ‘Western’ dietary pattern associates with an increased risk of mental health problems including depressive symptoms in adolescents, through biologically plausible pathways of adiposity and inflammation, whereas a ‘Healthy’ dietary pattern appears protective in these pathways. Longitudinal modelling into adulthood is indicated to confirm the complex associations of dietary patterns, adiposity, inflammation and mental health problems, including depressive symptoms.”

Western diet associated with many health problems

Truly, the notion that a diet low in nutrients can have adverse effects on mental health should come as no surprise; if low-quality diets have been attributed to problems across the rest of the body, why should the brain be any different? Indeed, research has shown that the typical Western diet increases the risk of many diseases, chronic illnesses and early death.

Whether it’s cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease, a poor quality diet is often in tow. Few people would question the benefits of a healthier, higher quality diet for people with heart disease or diabetes. And it turns out the same holds true for mental illnesses like depression.

Last year, a clinical trial showed that changing over to a better quality, more nutrient-rich diet could help fight depression. Healthy food as an antidepressant could shake up the pharmaceutical industry’s hold on people suffering with depression – and it could help give patients a new lease on life. In this trial, 32 percent of people who followed a healthy diet protocol for 12 weeks achieved complete remission – meaning they no longer had depression based on the Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale. On average, healthy diet followers improved their scores on the depression rating scale by about 11 points.

It is clear that diet plays a role in the health of not only your body, but your mind. Who would have thought, our bodies and brains are connected.

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