Unhealthy eating

Unhealthy Eating and Teenage Brains – 10 Things You Need to Know Now!

April 30, 2021

Although a significant portion of brain development takes place during early adolescence, the teen years are also a time of substantial change and development. The growth that takes place during these critical years can have a significant impact on their thinking and behaviors.

Essential aspects of their day-to-day lives such as sleep, activity, socializing, and diet all combine to influence how the teen brain develops and “remodels” throughout adolescence and into early adulthood. Although up to 95% of brain development takes place before age six, significant and crucial changes occur during a time when stress, poor diet, and other adverse circumstances influence your teen’s ability to be their healthiest. For some, disordered eating also challenges the ability of the brain to develop in a healthy way. Mental health concerns such as stress and disordered eating should not be ignored. If you are concerned about your teen’s mental health, reach out to the team at Hillcrest today to learn more about how to help your teen get back on track with their health.

Diet and the Teenage Brain

Believe it or not, poor nutrition does impact normal brain development. Poor eating choices such as too much fast food and not enough fruits and vegetables can affect not only brain development but promote alterations in the brain itself.

Diet Can Affect the Structure of the Brain

As the brain grows and develops, a process that takes place throughout the teen years and beyond, it does so from the back forward. This means the last portion of the brain to reach maturity is the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for decision-making and behavior control. Because this area of the brain is not fully developed, teens are less likely to make healthy food choices instead of choosing those that their brain deems highly rewarding.

Research has shown that continued or excessive consumption of junk food can lead to changes in the prefrontal cortex’s function and structure. The most notable are changes to how the body produces and releases dopamine.

Poor Diet “feels” More Rewarding for Teens

Dopamine is the chemical in the brain responsible for pleasure and reward. If the brain views something as rewarding, for example, a cheeseburger or an ice cream cone, it releases dopamine. This makes the individual want to carry out the behavior over and over again because it results in pleasurable or euphoric feelings. Adolescents and teens have more numbers of dopamine receptors in the brain than adults do. Therefore, when they experience something rewarding, the effect is often significantly more heightened than it would be for an adult. Overstimulating the teens’ reward system with poor diet choices can lead to reduced ability to control they are eating habits as they enter adulthood.

Poor Diet Effects More Than Physical Health

The effects of a poor diet extend beyond physical health to most areas of brain function. This includes attention span, the ability to learn new information, the ability to remember information, and being able to regulate mood. Therefore, poor dietary choices have a significant impact on mental health for adolescents and teens. If you believe your teen is struggling with mental health symptoms, consider their diet first. Positive changes and a healthy, well-balanced diet can help regulate many emotional symptoms that contribute to teens’ mental health challenges.

Diet impacts serotonin Release

In addition to dopamine, another essential neurotransmitter in the body is serotonin. Serotonin is responsible for regulating sleep and appetite along with regulating mood and inhibiting pain. Approximately 95% of the serotonin in your body is produced in your stomach. Therefore, in a way, your stomach can help to regulate your emotions. The production of serotonin is significantly influenced by the bacteria that make up the contents of your intestinal tract. These bacteria not only protect the lining of your stomach, but they ensure a barrier against harmful bacteria, limit inflammation, and improve your ability to absorb nutrients from your food. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they activate the pathways that travel between the stomach and the brain. Therefore, a poor diet can reduce the effectiveness of serotonin production and increase the possibility of negative alterations in mood.

Diet Can Help with Depression

Although it is not uncommon for many people to reach for a pint of ice cream or a slice of pizza when they’re depressed, this may not be the best solution. Some studies have indicated that diets such as those seen outside of the United States provide a significantly reduced risk of depression. It is believed this is because these diets contain moderate amounts of meats and dairy as well as being absent of processed and refined sugars. Healthier food options often act as natural probiotics helping to increase the activities of good bacteria, improve mood, elevate energy levels and reduce inflammation.

Sugary Drinks May Increase the Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease

Sugary drinks such as sods, energy drinks, sports drinks, and even fruit juice are not the best choices for your teen. High intake of sugary drinks leads to obesity and increases the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, but they also have a negative effect on the brain. Data published in the National Library of Medicine points to a correlation between increased sugar intake and developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Another study found that a diet high in sugar increased brain inflammation and impaired memory.

Aspartame Impair Cognitive Ability

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener used in many sugar-free and diet products. Aspartame is usually used as a sweetener to reduce sugar and carbs in products consumed by those trying to avoid sugar. Unfortunately, the components of aspartame (phenylalanine, methanol, and aspartic acid) have been linked to behavioral and cognitive problems. Phenylalanine may disrupt the production of neurotransmitters, and aspartame itself may be responsible for increasing the brain’s susceptibility to oxidative stress.

Avoid Trans Fats         

Trans fats occur naturally in animal products such as meat and dairy. These are not a significant concern. However, manufactured trans fats (hydrogenated vegetable oils) which are found in shortening, margarine, frosting, snack foods, prepackaged cookies, and ready-made cakes, are a significant problem for brain health. Various studies have shown an association between trans-fat intake and an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease, poor memory, reduce brain volume, and significant cognitive decline.

Disordered Eating Can Damage the Brain

Eating disorders are common among teens. At any given time, it is estimated as many 3% of teens ages thirteen to eighteen have an eating disorder. There are many reasons why teens develop an eating disorder. Without treatment at a teen-focused treatment center like Hillcrest, significant and potentially dangerous physical and psychological consequences can occur. In addition to mental and physical health concerns, there is a growing amount of research surrounding how disordered eating affects the brain. While there is still a lot left to learn and study, research has found that disordered eating affects neurotransmitter production and function, results in structural changes, causes disordered thinking, affects the reward system, results in emotional and mood changes, and affects your teen’s ability to perform cognitive functions.

Recovery and Improved Cognitive Function are Possible

Fortunately, the National Institutes of Health and other research centers believe the damage caused to the brain by disordered eating is reversible with appropriate treatment that addresses the physical and psychological roots of disordered eating 

When it comes to diet, teens are often thought to be both blessed and cursed. The adolescent and teen years are often those where one can eat virtually anything they please and not suffer the consequences- at least visually. Poor dietary choices have significant physical and functional impacts on the brain that many cannot see or feel until it is too late, and the damage is already done. Many studies point to multiple ways in which poor diets high in sugars, trans fats, and carbs work to impact how the brain develops and functions. Also, although research is still ongoing, there is a large amount of data that indicates disordered eating may impair the physical structure and function of the brain. If your teen is struggling with a poor diet, it is essential to look for ways to help them learn more about how their diet now can impact their health tomorrow. Consider reaching out to their primary care provider for guidance on this crucial topic. If you are concerned your teen is struggling with disordered eating, it is crucial to seek comprehensive treatment immediately. The short and long-term effects of eating disorders can lead to dangerous and sometimes fatal consequences.  The longer your teen struggles with the symptoms and negatives thoughts associated with disordered eating, the more psychologically challenging it is to recover.

If you are concerned about your teen’s diet and mental health, reach out for help and guidance to the caring and compassionate team at Hillcrest. If your teen’s mental health struggles or cognitive struggles are rooted in disordered eating or diet, our unique and individualized treatment programs can help you learn more about how their thoughts and behaviors lead to difficulties with diet. At Hillcrest, we will work with your teen and your family to learn more about how diet and nutrition contribute to and affect mental health. It is crucial for the family to be an active component of treatment as it is far easier for your teen to recover and maintain long-term recovery if they have a strong support system at home. By working together, your whole family can begin a healthier journey through a better relationship with diet and food. If you are ready to help your teen start a new path towards a physical and psychologically healthier future, reach out to the admissions team at Hillcrest today to learn more.