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The Effects of Fast Food on Teen Mental Health


written by Skye Sherman - Oct 16, 2023

Photo Credit: by Robin Stickel, Pexels.com
Photo Credit: by Robin Stickel, Pexels.com

Teen mental health has been in crisis in recent decades, and the wait we eat certainly is not helping. With rates of teen depression and anxiety higher than ever, we are often quick to blame obvious factors like cyber bullying, social media, vaping, unrealistic beauty standards, and the like.

However, don’t ignore the fact that diet can play a big part, too. Diets are more processed than ever, and the effects are mental and emotional as well as physical. Fast food restaurants are high in calories but low in nutritional value, creating a lack of nutrition but an excess of weight, and many packaged foods contain more artificial ingredients (which the body doesn’t recognize) than true nutrients.

In this article, we’ll explore the effects of fast food on teen mental health and see if there’s a connection between the typical teenage American diet and their mental wellness.

What are teens eating?

To understand if there’s a problem, we first need to examine the diets of American teens and children.

According to NPR, “Quick, convenient, ready-to-heat meals and packaged snacks now dominate the diets of American kids and teens. They’re all what’s known as all ultra-processed foods, that is, industrially formulated products made mostly from ingredients extracted or refined from foods. They’re usually high in fat, added sugars and salt. And they often contain additives like colorings, flavorings, emulsifiers or hydrogenated oils — used to transform the texture, looks and flavor of food.”

The article continues, “Ultra-processed foods made up a whopping 67% of the calories in kids’ and teens’ diets in 2018 … The trend cuts across socioeconomic lines … [and] kids are eating less of the foods we know are good for them, like fruits and vegetables.”

The research shows that high consumption of these ultra-processed foods leads to bad health outcomes like a higher risk of hypertension, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and even dying prematurely. Yes, you read that right: what you eat in childhood and adolescence can actually shorten your lifespan!

Plus, the dietary habits you adopt as you grow up typically becomes the way you eat as an adult. If we want healthier societies, it starts with how we feed our children in schools and at home. But keep in mind that it’s not totally your fault (or theirs) if your teen is addicted to fast food.

As The Globe and Mail points out, “Unhealthy food brands are increasingly targeting young people on social media … making them especially vulnerable to obesity and a long list of chronic diseases. … in 2020, the top 40 food brands in Canada that sell fast food, or products high in sugar, salt and saturated fats, were mentioned more than 16 billion times on social-media sites. These posts were seen by about 42 billion users across sites such as YouTube, Twitter and Reddit – many of them children and teenagers.”

To help kids avoid the targeted effects of these advertisements, they need to first understand what ultra processed foods are, why they might want to avoid them, and how to make more healthful choices in their diets.

Nexdine also writes, “Many studies have reported that young people are eating well below dietary recommendations. Children and adolescents have become increasingly reliant on nutrient-poor foods high in sugar and saturated fatty acids such as soft drinks, confectionary items, and baked snacks. These dietary patterns are not only significantly related to obesity and non-communicable diseases, but they also critically impact brain development and mental health as well. Consumption of diet and snack-like foods has been linked to behavioral and emotional problems in children, which has been linked to mental disorders in adulthood.”

You may not expect that the junk food you eat as a kid can lead to mental health issues in childhood and adulthood, but the science is proving that to be the case.

What are ultra processed foods and what should you eat instead?

Wondering how to cut or decrease consumption of ultra processed food? Even foods that are marketed as being good for you can be tricky, containing artificial ingredients, tons of additives, and a high content of sugar, fat, or sodium.

To eat a more healthful diet, start by prioritizing fresh vegetables, meat, or dairy, which come in their original forms and are thus unprocessed or minimally processed. If you’re going to eat something from a package, look at the ingredients list first.

NPR advises, “If you see a bunch of items that wouldn’t be in your home kitchen – like stabilizers, flavor enhancers, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, thickeners and bulking agents — then it is ultra-processed.”

If the ingredients list is long, the food is most likely at least moderately processed. Be aware of serving sizes according to the package and watch out for how much added sugar the item contains. Sugar is a big culprit behind obesity and other health risks.

For example, buying canned peaches in syrup might be easier to grab and go or pack in a lunchbox, but eating a fresh peach will be way better for your health. You don’t even need to cut it up first; you can eat it like an apple.

If you need to keep fast food stops in your regular diet rotation, another idea is to opt for healthier fast food places. For example, instead of stopping at McDonald’s or Burger King, switch it up and find what your family loves at Chipotle (which can offer very nutrient-rich and balanced meals) or grab egg bites at Starbucks.

What are the physical and mental effects of ultra processed food?

As fast food and ultra processed foods have become the norm, so have diseases, illnesses, and poor health.

The Globe and Mail reports, “Child obesity, which is linked with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety, has tripled in Canada over the past three decades. As of 2015, almost 20 percent of children under the age of 11 were considered overweight or obese.”

This is epidemic level. Teens are more overweight and miserable than ever while being more connected and under pressure than ever, and the connection is obvious.

Medical News Today also reports, “Eating lots of fast food could also impact an individual’s mental health and make them more prone to depression and anxiety. … [There’s] an association between healthy food such as leafy greens, nuts, and fish and positive mood, while the opposite was true of fast food.”

Fast food is typically high in calories, sugar, unhealthy fats, and low in essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which makes it a poor nutritional choice. Bad nutrition can lead to mood swings, fatigue, cognitive issues, and more, all of which may affect mental well-being.

Plus, the weight gain and obesity associated with too much fast food can lead to body image issues, low self-esteem, and increased risk of depression and anxiety, especially among teens.

And don’t forget that the teenage years are critical years for brain development, and nutrition plays a vital role in this process. A diet high in fast food may lack the nutrients necessary for optimal brain development, potentially affecting cognitive function and emotional well-being. There’s also a strong connection between the gut and the brain, and unhealthy diets can harm the gut microbiome, potentially leading to mood disturbances and mental health problems.

But it’s not just emotional health we’re talking about here. The article also states, “[There’s] a link between unbalanced diets high in saturated fat and simple carbohydrates, typical of fast food, and a lower capacity for memory and learning. This sort of diet may also raise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.” If you want to age more gracefully, eat more real food.

As you can see, fast food can affect not only your levels of happiness, but also your cognitive abilities such as memory and learning. The typical Western diet is also linked to poor digestive health, high inflammation, lowered immunity, allergies, heart disease, blood pressure issues, and more.

And since mental health can be closely tied to physical health, all of these diseases and conditions can affect mental wellbeing just as much as they hold you back physically.

Still, clinical depression may warrant treatment with a prescription antidepressant like Trintellix, Wellbutrin XL, and Lamictal. Always consult with a medical professional if your mental health is suffering, as a doctor can recommend the best course of treatment for you.

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