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Eat Well for a Happier Life in Adolescents

With festive and the holiday seasons, teenagers often party hard and are more likely to ignore their nutritional requirements. A recent Australian study emphasized the importance of ensuring diet quality in adolescence and its potential role in modifying mental health over the life course.

Studies have demonstrated inverse relationships between diet quality and the common mental disorders in adults. However, little is known about such association in adolescents. Given that three quarters of lifetime psychiatric disorders will emerge in adolescence or early adulthood, a recent prospective study investigated the temporal relationships between diet quality and mental health and the associations between change in diet quality and change in psychological symptoms.

Researchers collected diet and mental health information from 3040 Australian adolescents aged 11–18 years at baseline in 2005–6 and followed up in 2007–8.  The study found that boys had significantly higher scores on the Unhealthy diet scale than girls and were also more active; and that improvements in diet quality were mirrored by improvements in mental health over the follow-up period, while deteriorating diet quality was associated with poorer psychological functioning.

The researchers hypothesized that diet quality influences the genesis and/or progression of depressive illnesses by modulating inflammatory, oxidative and/or neurotrophic factors.

Given that adequate nutrition is essential during periods of rapid physical development, and that the majority of mental health problems first manifest in adolescence and early adulthood, further intervention studies are now urgently required to test the effectiveness of preventing the common mental disorders through dietary modification.  For the parents, the foods available and provided to adolescents need to be receiving much greater attention.  Particular attention should be paid to creating environments that promote healthy eating in supporting adolescents to maintain good nutrition during a difficult life stage.

Jacka FN et al. (2011) A Prospective Study of Diet Quality and Mental Health in Adolescents; PLoS ONE 6(9): e24805. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024805

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