Fiona Hunter, one of the UK's leading nutritionists, takes a look at the possible correlation between mental health issues in teenagers and how this could be linked to the lack of vital vitamins and minerals they're consuming.

Eating a healthy balanced diet is not usually high up on the "to-do" list for most teenagers and young adults – one reason is that they feel invincible, things like heart disease and cancer are problems that 'old' people need to worry about.

They feel fit and healthy and have plenty of energy so why do they worry about what they eat?

What they don't know is that the seeds of many of the diseases that people suffer from later in life are sown early in life, reports the Daily Mail.


Indeed, autopsies carried out on soldiers, fit young men, who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, found that one in 12 showed early signs of heart disease. And findings from the UK's National Diet and Nutrition Survey highlights poor health among young people.

Even young wellness warriors aren't guaranteed to get all the nutrients they need from their diet – in fact many experts warn that they may have an even greater risk of deficiency because of their restrictive diets.

But do they realise what it's doing to their mental health?

Here, I explain the issues driving poor diet and mental health, and how to get around it.

Teenagers aren't getting enough of what they need

Only eight per cent of young people aged between 11-18 are eating the recommended five or more portions of fruit and or veg – with the average intake being a meager 2.8 portions a day.

Given the lack of fruit and veg that young people are eating it's no surprise that key nutrients found in fruit and veg such as B vitamin folate and minerals magnesium and potassium were also low. Almost in one in three girls (28 per cent) aged between 11-18 had levels of folate in their red blood cells which is indicative of a long-term deficiency of folate.

Low levels of folate and omega-3 fats, also known to be lacking in teenagers' diet have also been linked with depression and other mental health problems.

Another real cause for concern is the number of young people who fail to get enough calcium in their diet.

Calcium is particularly important for children, teenagers and young adults because their bones are still growing and this is when calcium is being laid down in their skeletal structure – the more calcium that is deposited in the bones while they are growing the lower the risk of osteoporosis later in life.

Around 19 per cent of girls and 12 per cent of boys had low intake of calcium. Photo / Getty Images
Around 19 per cent of girls and 12 per cent of boys had low intake of calcium. Photo / Getty Images

Osteoporosis affects one in two women and one in five men over the age of 50 but the window of opportunity to reduce the risk later in life is while the bones are still growing.

We can't just blame sugar and obesity

The scary thing is that it's not simply one or two vitamins that they are missing out on. It's a whole host and this nutrient gap has been largely ignored as we focus on things like sugar, and obesity, which of course are important but we need to remember that they are only part of the picture.

How can young people eat better?

1. Don't use snacks as substitutes for proper meals

Teenagers and young adults are a generation of grazers but it can be hard to get all the nutrients you need if you're only eating snacks. Many snacks are high in fat, sugar and salt and short on vitamins, minerals and fiber so if you are going to snack then be snack smart – choose snacks that are fortified with and make a positive contribution to your diet.

2. Plan ahead

Teenagers tend not to be good at thinking ahead and in terms of food this means that they often end up eating on the hoof, grabbing whatever available at the time – this can be expensive and not very healthy, so plan ahead and pack a healthy snack before you leave the house

3. Don't eat alone

If you have teenagers it important to try and sit them down and eat together as a family at least a couple of times a week. Family meals provide an opportunity to talk and studies show that children who regularly eat with their families are more likely to have a healthier diet and have a higher intake of key vitamins and minerals.

4. Don't eat the same foods every day

Variety may be the spice of life but it's also the key to a healthy diet but its many young people get stuck a food rut eating the same few foods in a loop.

5. Don't believe everything you read online

The internet can be a good source for learning about diet and nutrition but there's also rubbish on line – often written by well-meaning individual but people don't have the appropriate qualifications or experience to give advice on nutrition

6. Don't follow fads

It's easy to be lured into the latest diet fad – claims made by the disciples of fads like clean eating, alkaline diets, Paleo diets all sound appealing but there's no science to support the promised they make and they can increase the risk of deficiencies

7. Do some research

It's okay to be vegan or vegetarian. In fact, plant-based diets offer a number of health benefits, but you have to make sure you replace the nutrients you would be getting from foods like dairy and meat with other foods rich in these nutrients. Both the Vegetarian Society and the Vegan Society have very good web sites which will help you make sure your diet contains everything it should

8. Take a multivitamin and mineral

Think of it as an insurance policy – of course its better to get vitamins and minerals from your food but in certain situations and at certain times of your life it's not always possible and as we understand more about diet and the nutritional gaps manufacturers have developed a range of products that will support teenagers from vitamins sprays, e.g. Healthspan Vitamin D3/B12 range of sprays to Gummy Multivitamins and fortified foods.