We chat to ION module leader Dr Lawton, an AfN registered nutritionist and BANT registered nutritional therapist, about supporting teen health and mental wellbeing using nutrition. 

Teenagers have had a difficult time over the last couple of years. How can nutrition help support their mental wellbeing?

“Many people don't realise how important nutrition is for our mental wellbeing. First of all, in terms of specific nutrients to support mental wellness, an optimum amount of protein, and in particular [the amino acid] tryptophan, is essential, as this is the precursor for the neurotransmitter serotonin which is needed for mental wellness. Consuming more omega-3s in the form of DHA and EPA is important for brain function. Zinc and magnesium are key minerals involved in metabolic pathways that support mental wellness, and B vitamins are also an important factor.

“The brain and the gut are linked through our parasympathetic nervous system, and there is a wealth of research showing that supporting gut health can have a knock-on effect to our mental wellness. Up to 90% of the serotonin that we require is produced in our gut [so] having a robust microbiome is essential for mental wellness. Eating foods that support our gut microbiota, such as bitters, a wide variety of phytonutrients containing natural prebiotics such as fruits and vegetables, natural probiotic foods such as unsweetened kefir and kombucha, and bio yoghurt from grass-fed cows, can all have a knock on effect on our mental wellness.

“Removing inflammatory foods such as sugar, gluten and additives, and consuming anti-inflammatory foods such as nuts, seeds, fatty fish, brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, high-protein foods, olives and olive oil, and avocado can also [help].”

As well as mental health issues, what other concerns do teens present with in your clinical practice?

“Over the years, in addition to depression, anxiety, and other neuroinflammatory concerns such as ADHD, ASD [autism spectrum disorder] and neurodiversity, I have worked with teens with gastrointestinal health issues, immune health concerns, and weight related issues and disordered eating, at both ends of the spectrum. Each client comes with their own story.”

What are the common nutrient deficiencies in teens and how can we rectify them?

“As children enter puberty, at just the exact moment that they require additional nutrients, we often see body awareness issues appear, triggering dietary changes that aren't in line with the child's needs.

“Children are continuing to grow until the age of 19, so it's essential that they are getting adequate protein, healthy fats and nutrients to support this, more so if they are particularly athletic. Most commonly, I see omega-3 deficiency, signs of iron, vitamin B12, folate and zinc deficiency, and overall phytonutrient deficiency from not eating enough of a range of fruit and vegetables. At this age I also often see a number of adolescents (predominantly female) restricting foods as they attempt to align with a societally driven physique, but also as they begin to demonstrate ethical awareness in the form of vegetarianism and veganism. If not planned well, this can lead to protein deficiency and a number of potential micronutrient deficiencies.”

What are the main challenges when working with teens to optimise their diet? 

Often the issue is finding an 'in'. More often than not, a child is initially coming unwillingly, based on their parents' decision that they require support. It is beneficial to engage with teenagers in a way that enables them to see that what you are suggesting is in their best interest, while supporting their life choices and understanding what is important to them.

“It's also not uncommon for adolescents to be fussy eaters. Working on intake of vegetables, fatty fish, and a broader range of protein-rich foods is often required. Supplementation in the early stages is often key, to correct any nutrient deficiencies that may be impacting the adolescents' mental wellness and decision making process.”

It’s not uncommon for teenagers to skip breakfast or opt for something unhealthy – what should they be eating in the morning? 

“If for any reason time is tight in the morning, I generally recommend a protein-rich smoothie, which can be prepared the night before and made quickly in the morning. Other easy breakfasts include chia puddings, Bircher muesli, fruit and yoghurt with nuts and seeds. Savoury options might include omelette muffins, a quick omelette or a homemade protein bar. It's essential that children have a healthy start to their day, particularly those who are active.”

Other than diet, are there any other measures that can help support teen health and mental wellbeing? 

“There are so many different activities that you can introduce as a family to support mental wellbeing. Replacing screen time with family-based activities, eating together daily and encouraging children to speak about their concerns and worries, having 'wins of the week' as a regular feature, promoting activities that stimulate the vagus nerve e.g. singing, humming, hugging, laughing, breathing, utilising some specific breathing activities such as box breathing (in for four, hold for four, out for four, hold for four, whilst drawing a square), yoga and meditation, and ensuring adequate, good quality sleep, all contribute to supporting mental wellness.” 

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