Fighting Mental Illness in Young Adults with Food

Whether or not the way to a person’s heart is through the gut,
it is established more and more each day that
food affects the mental health of us all.

More so in the formative years of adolescence.

Whether or not the way to a person’s heart is through the gut, it is established more and more each day that food affects the mental health of us all. More so in the formative years of adolescence. The way and what early teens and young adults eat will set the premise for their eating habits going ahead. So it is indisputable that good nutrition is an important factor in long term health, physical and mental of our younger generation.

A teenager’s body is unlike any. Developing rapidly, undergoing so many changes, experiencing growth spurts and hormonal changes, good nutrition plays a paramount role in developing healthy bones, strong muscles, good skin, vigorous immunity among others. But amidst all this tangible change, we may lose sight of the intangible - the mental health and wellbeing of your kid, both in the short term, dealing with all the physical and social changes and the long term.

Let us explore a few ideas, simple yet not given heed to often enough that affect the mental health of young adults.

Food And Fondness Of Life

Most of us have an instinctive understanding of how food affects our moods, some instantaneously affecting the very fondness we display for the things that constitute our lives. Although it is a rather complicated and involved process, some of which have more to do with the emotional connection owing to memories than the actual ingredient in the food.

The sugary comfort of an ice cream or a cupcake is an evolutionary trait. The sugar helps trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, making you feel happier. But dopamine flood recedes as quickly as it comes on, leaving one craving for more. A dash of coffee or chocolate in it could chemically explain the positivity one experiences while indulging in these.

Chocolate, particularly the dark chocolate is a well-known mood booster. Its mechanism is well understood, with the release of endorphins, the very same hormones released when exercising or engrossed in an adventure. Added to that, the caffeine content in the chocolate gives an energy boost which is many times interpreted as mood enhancement.

Right food is the wise choice

Easy come, easy go. As we realize, the sugar rush recedes as quick as it comes on. What is more is that the craving turns to an addiction almost, making it worse in the future. Cravings of the sweet kind doubled with the bodily effects such as bloating and even the readiness with which non-indulgence leads to stress and the subsequent overeating, in reality, makes the situation worse.

Foods that are truly good for you in terms of mood enhancement and mental health often work incrementally over a definitive time period and certainly not instantly that is a signature of comfort foods.
Today, what we perceive as comfort foods are just power packs of sugar and fat. Evolution has primed us to associate a greater affinity for them, but the context has changed. It was designed for a scenario where availability was scarce. But thanks or no thanks to modern agri-tech, sugar and fat are abundant and even inexpensive. Unfortunately, evolution did not model us to like the truly healthy mood-boosting foods as much.
Let us consider a particular example. Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that is key to the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter helping regulate our moods. Foods rich in Vitamin D are fatty fish such as Salmon and for vegetarians, fortified soy milk does the job. Many languages have an equivalent of ‘eat sunlight’ for basking in the sun, as sunlight is one of the best ways to produce Vitamin D in the body itself. Yet, in our busy lives, we rarely step out to ‘eat sunlight’ nor do most of us find Vitamin D rich food appealing compared to a dessert or a pizza with a generous drizzle of cheese.

Here pizza and pastries not just have a chemical pathway to instant gratification but also an emotional one. Most happy family celebrations, dinners and parties are incomplete without these.
Deficiency in Vitamin D causes reduced serotonin production causing many mood and mental disorders including being afflicted by SAD (seasonal affective disorder)

Many, if not all mental health disorders are directly or very closely related to what and how a person eats. Conditions such as anorexia nervosa are all too familiar to many parents worldwide with their teenagers afflicted by it. Refusal to intake the optimal level of nutrition that a body needs, in effect starving the body is a hallmark of this disorder. Closely related to this is Bulimia, again quite common among the young adults. This disorder is marked by cycles of binging and purging, sometimes physically by forced vomiting or through unprescribed medications such as diuretics and laxatives.

The long term damage to the body and mental health is well documented. Adolescents who are victims of these disorders also tend to suffer from low self esteem, social anxiety among other things. Unfortunately the causal structure is hard to establish, or maybe it is fortunate, as some studies have suggested that a proper diet seems to reverse these disorders.

Other common eating disorders include:
Binge-eating disorder
Purging disorder
Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder

Most people think of eating disorders as a case of mental health affecting nutrition, not nutrition affecting mental health. But it may be more useful to think of it as a circle.

Many studies seem to peg that by weight a human body is hardly 40% human DNA, the rest of it are, in actuality, microorganisms that coexist within our body helping many functions. Our gut has one of the largest proliferation of ‘alien’ microorganisms. Recent studies seem to suggest that these microbes have a direct correlation on mental health. When we do not feed our body with the proper nutrition, these micro-biome suffers, in turn affecting our wellbeing.

Teenagers and young adults who are suffering form eating disorders have the double disadvantage of not getting the proper nutrients for their body and their minds, buttressed by the inabiity to make the right choices and good decisions, further contributing to social isolation, anxiety, depression and more.

Over indulging, binging on food whether or not coupled with purging leads to stress of weight gain, mood imbalances due to unmitigated dips and spikes in blood sugar, serotonin, dopamine and other such chemicals in our body necessary for mental and physical wellbeing. Eating disorders and disorderly eating are mental health issues in themselves and lead to other mental problems and conditions.

Good Foods for Great Mental Health

Certain foods are ambrosaic in the sense that they promote good physical and mental wellbeing, even if not eternal life.  

Foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids are known to enhance brain functions. Populations who have oily fish in their diets as a regular fixture are known to experience depression less often or frequently than those who do not have diets rich in oily fish. There are ofcourse other sources of Omega-3 fatty acids.
Probiotics help with gut biome and strongly correlate to reduced levels of depression apart from helping negate the irritable bowel syndrome. Whole grains are full of vitamins that also help in productiong of serotonin. So a rich and balanced diet is essential for sound mental health.

When you eat also seems to matter. Studies show that people who eat breakfast regularly have fewer depressive symptoms as opposed to those who habitually skip breakfast.  


Teenagers are generally set in their likes and dislikes, and it is quite a task to change them, but certainly not impossible. Availability and ease of access to good food, timely plays an important role in this. As a corollary, making binge-foods difficult to access also helps break the chain. Schools, universities and even homes should actively seek participation from young adults in planning, shopping, gardening, prepping and cooking. Along with being social activities to indulge in, they also make food relatable and intimate to teenagers helping them mould their choices for a healthier lifestyle.

A happy and relaxed kitchen and kitchen garden are the perfect venues for kids to feel safe, comforted and cared for. Such positive associations with good and healthy foods will reinforce their desire to consume more of it enhancing physical health and mental wellbeing.

At HPG Consulting we bring this holistic dimension to food and everything related to food, making it an important aspect and activity of our lives at every level and every venue, be it office, schools, universities. Our expert food and beverage strategy designers help create tailor-made plans that suit the social, cultural and ecological needs of the project location.

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