Childhood and adolescence is a period of rapid development, and both are critically important to developing a foundation for good physical and mental health in adulthood. Unfortunately, studies have shown that young people are not meeting many health-promoting recommendations, particularly when it comes to eating a healthy diet. In Australia, fewer than 5% of adolescents eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables and they are much more likely to be regularly eating nutrient-poor foods that are high in added sugar and salt. These dietary patterns are understood to have negative consequences for future physical health, but the scientific research also shows that what children and adolescents are eating is critically important to their brains and mental health as well.

What do we know?

Researchers around the world have investigated the relationship between what children and adolescents are eating and emotional and behavioural problems. Many studies from a multitude of countries now show that a dietary pattern higher in added sugar and fats, and ultra-processed foods, is linked to more emotional and behavioural problems in children and adolescents. We have also shown that unhealthy diets are related to smaller parts of the brain that are critical to learning and memory, as well as mental health. The good news, however, is that these studies suggest that a good quality, healthy diet – high in fruits and vegetables – can be protective of mental health, reducing the likelihood for such problems in this population.

What do we need to do now?

Childhood and adolescence are critical windows of development; during this time, many psychiatric conditions emerge for the first time. Many common mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety, often arise in our early years and can be long lasting. Fortunately, there is good evidence to suggest that eating a nutritious diet can be protective, and can reduce the chances of developing a mental disorder. Early life and adolescence in particular is a time of transition to adulthood where many lifelong habits are being established. This time is highly important to establishing healthy habits, and educating young people on nutrition, food and cooking.

How to support your child or adolescent with eating nutritious foods

Parents often feel a lot of pressure to ensure their child is eating healthily and supporting them to do so isn’t always easy. Here are some basic tips to support your child with eating nutritiously:

  • Model healthy eating habits yourself
  • Involve your child with food shopping and cooking
  • Eat meals with your child, and encourage mindful eating by turning off screens
  • Avoid using food as a reward, bribe or punishment
  • Teach your kids about how foods are grown and where they come from
  • Do not focus on weight or dieting during conversations about healthy eating
  • Role model positive body image and be mindful of the language you use to describe your own weight and eating
  • Do not be too concerned if your child or adolescent dislikes certain foods

Further information

If you’re wanting to support your child or adolescent with eating well, below are some links for further information: