Assessing the Relationship Between Diet and Mental Health in Adolescents

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Background: Rates of obesity and mental health disorders have significantly increased among American youth in recent years. This study sought to investigate the possible association between mental health complaints and obesity. 

Objective: The objective was to determine whether the diet of young people was associated with self-reported mental health complaints. The association of depressive and suicidal symptoms with the self-reported amount of proteins, sugars, and fats consumed was analyzed. Based on prior studies, the study hypothesis was that an increased intake of fats and sugars would be associated with a higher prevalence of these mental health conditions, while an intake of proteins would be associated with the opposite. 

Design/Methods: This was a retrospective cohort study of NHANES survey data from 2017-2018, the most recent year available. Only survey respondents 18-21 years of age were included as mental health questions were only asked to those aged 18 and above. This resulted in 43,850 participants (Table 1). Data included demographics (age, gender, ethnicity), self-reported mental health concerns, and self-reported dietary intake. The self-reported mental health questionnaires displayed a scale of frequency for the following depression and suicidality questions: "how often do you feel down, depressed, or hopeless" and "how often do you think you'd be better off dead" (Figure 1).  A lower score means the participant reported experiencing suicidal ideation or depression less often. Diet data includes self-reported daily intake in grams of protein, sugar, and fat. A linear regression analysis was performed to determine the association of dietary intake in grams and mental health markers. The regression model included age, ethnicity, and gender to control for demographic variables. 

Results: Output of the linear regression analyses are listed in Tables 2 and 3. For every 1g of increased protein intake, the score on the suicidal ideation marker and depression marker decreased. For every 1g of increased fat and sugar intake, the score on the suicidal ideation marker and the depression marker increased. This supports the initial hypothesis and prior publications that found that increased fat and sugar intake can adversely affect mood, while protein intake can improve it. The fact that the trends remained consistent in both depression and suicidality outcomes further strengthen our results. 

Conclusion: The results indicate that when controlled for demographic differences in a large national 18-21-year-old cohort, fat and sugar is associated with negative changes in depression and suicidal ideation, while protein is associated with the opposite. This is one of the largest studies to date to show these types of mental health associations. Given the dramatic increase in mental health complaints among youth, this study highlights the need for more broad research on the relationship between dietary intake and mental health conditions. 

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University of Connecticut School of Medicine
University Of Connecticut
University of Connecticut
University of Connecticut

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