Can Eating Fast Food Lead To Depression For Teens?

By Beth Leipholtz 09/04/19

A new study examined the possible connection between depression and a fast-food heavy diet in teens.

teen eating fast food
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Teens' diets could be contributing to their mental health, specifically their levels of depression, a new study has found. 

According to CNN, recent research indicates there could be a connection between teenagers with a “high fast-food, low plant-based diet,” and depression levels. 

As part of the study, researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) studied urine samples from a group of middle school students at one point, then again 18 months later. Both times, the students were screened for symptoms of depression. 

In the urine, high levels of sodium and low levels of potassium were present. 

"High sodium, you've got to think of highly processed food," said lead author Sylvie Mrug, chair of the psychology department at UAB. "This includes fast food, frozen meals and unhealthy snacks."

Missing Nutrients

According to Mrug, having low potassium is a sign that a person’s diet may be missing certain healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, that have high levels of potassium. These include foods like beans, sweet potatoes, spinach, tomatoes, bananas, oranges, avocados, yogurt and salmon. 

Researchers also discovered that having a higher level of sodium in the urine could predict a student’s likelihood of exhibiting signs of depression 18 months later. 

"The study findings make sense, as potassium-rich foods are healthy foods," said dietitian Lisa Drayer, a CNN health and nutrition contributor. "So, if adolescents include more potassium-rich foods in their diet, they will likely have more energy and feel better overall—which can lead to a better sense of well-being and improved mental health."

Other Studies

These findings aren’t necessarily new, as prior research has pointed to a similar connection between diet and mental health in adults. More specifically, one study found that adults who followed a diet of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and little red meat or processed foods were less likely to struggle with depression.

While the study of middle school students seemed to point to a definite connection between diet and depression, researchers say it was too small to be definitive, as it only included 84 students, 95% of which were African-American and from low-income homes.

Mrug noted that more research is needed, as the study found an association but not a cause and effect relationship between diet and depression. 

"It might also be true that a poor diet could be linked to other risk factors for depression, such as social isolation, lack of support, lack of resources and access to healthcare and substance abuse," Drayer adds. "It might be hard to tease out if diet is the factor or simply a marker for other risk factors for depression."

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.