Is poor diet driving the mental health crisis?

Are younger people suffering more at the hands of poor diets?

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Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
Ask Emma

29 June 2018

1 - B vitamins

Why do we need them?

B vitamins are essential for supporting our nervous system and energy levels. Research has shown that increasing the levels of B-vitamins including vitamin B6, B12 and folate in the diets of young adults had positive effects on mental health reports, stress levels and cognitive functions1

Are we lacking?

There are 8 different B vitamins in total and the most recent National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) found that up to nearly one third of teenagers were deficient in many of the B vitamins including folate or vitamin B22.

B vitamins are often found in sources of carbohydrates which younger people may be limiting when trying out fad diets such as Atkins or when attempting to lose weight. 

What are some good food sources?

My advice is don’t be scared of carbohydrates – the key is to eat the right types in order to support your health and ensure that you are getting your fix of B vitamins. Opt for wild rice, millet, chickpeas, brown rice and then some eggs or fish for a source of B12 which is more limited in veggie options.

2 - Iron

Why do we need it?

Iron is an essential mineral and has an important role when it comes to our overall mental health and well being, energy and metabolism. Iron is important for transporting oxygen around our body, so unsurprisingly if our levels are low it can make us feel sluggish, weak and down in the dumps.

Are we lacking?

The latest NDNS confirmed our suspicions and highlighted that just under half of all young females were low in iron2

With heavy periods proving hard to manage for many young women, it’s not surprising that stores are low – especially if their intake of fresh foods isn’t great. Anaemia is a common diagnosis at doctors’ surgeries but beware that conventional iron supplements often aren’t tolerated very well and may contribute to constipation. So, head to your local health food store for a gentler option.

What are some good food sources?

Red meat is an obvious source of iron but some lighter veggie options to stock up on include beans, pulses, dried fruit, beetroot and fortified cereals.

3 - Zinc

Why do we need it?

Zinc helps a number of key processes and hormones which are important for supporting our energy metabolism, cognitive functions and mood. Young males, in particular, often need an extra dose of zinc during their teenage years when they are growing, developing and studying.

Are we lacking?

In times of stress and for those who are on certain medications, we can risk draining our supplies of zinc. Approximately one fifth of young people are thought to be low in zinc2 and this may get worse as we get older depending on our diets and lifestyle habits! 

Many of the best sources of zinc can be found in meat and shellfish so with more restrictive diets, more people may be struggling to get enough.

What are some good food sources?

Apart from fish and shellfish, nuts, seeds, beans and barley are some top sources of zinc.

4 - Calcium

Why do we need it?

When it comes to calcium, many people assume it’s important for bone health and not much else! But actually, calcium is also super important for energy production and regulating our mood. 

Calcium acts as an electrolyte in the body and almost acts as a sedative within the nervous system; it helps to keep us feeling calm and keeps stress, anxiety and low mood to a minimum.

Are we lacking?

With vegan lifestyles becoming much more prevalent in younger audiences, dairy is often shunned and a lack of fresh foods aren’t often there to compensate.

Nearly 1 out of 5 young women were reported to be deficient in calcium and more than 1 in 10 young males2, so it seems we aren’t quite hitting the mark with our dietary intake.

What are some good food sources?

Even if you aren’t opting for dairy, we know that plant-based sources of calcium often contain a handier balance of other mood-boosting nutrients too, such as magnesium. Stock up on lots of dark leafy greens, cruciferous veg, beans and dried fruit in order to boost your intake.

5 - Magnesium

Why do we need it?

Magnesium is another important mineral that is crucial for supporting our mood. It has an important role in the function of our nervous system, helping to keep stress and anxiety at bay and also supporting our sleep. A lack of sleep can also affect our mood which can easily turn into a horrible vicious cycle. 

Are we lacking?

Like many other important nutrients, magnesium is rarely found in processed foods and is solely found in fresh foods which many young adults who may have recently flown the nest could well be lacking in.

Medications such as the contraceptive pill or alcohol can also drain our stores and as a result, up to nearly a whopping half of young females, and over a quarter of young males were found to be deficient2.

What are some good food sources?

Good sources of magnesium include dark leafy greens, almond, bananas, oats and pumpkin seeds.

6 - Vitamin D

Why do we need it?

Vitamin D is classed as a pro-hormone and is important for supporting a large number of biological systems. Receptor sites can be found all over our bodies including within your muscles and joints, immune system, but also in and around our central nervous system so therefore potentially affecting our mood. 

Lower levels of vitamin D have also been found women who are susceptible to mood disorders3

Are we lacking?

Food sources of vitamin D are lacking and we rely on manufacturing most of this essential vitamin through our skin. Especially in the UK where sunshine tends to be lacking for the majority of the year, it’s not surprising that many of us are deficient. Plus, we need sufficient magnesium levels to actually be able to put our vitamin D to good use in the body, so this can often be a stumbling block too. 

Common symptoms of deficiency can include fatigue, low mood, depleted immune functions and excessive sweating. Your doctor can perform a simple blood test to check your levels if you suspect you could be low.

What are some good food sources?

A good dose of sunshine is the best way to up your vitamin D levels. Get your legs and arms on display and try and get out in the sun for around 20 minutes daily (any longer and you’ll need to take precautions not to burn). Although food sources are minimal; fish, eggs and mushrooms are some top food picks.

7 - Iodine

Why do we need it?

Iodine is one of the key nutrients that help support our thyroid gland, which in turn, helps to keep our metabolism ticking over. Being low in iodine can not only affect our energy levels and weight management, but it is thought to have an important role in influencing neurotransmitters in the brain which affect our mood.

Are we lacking?

Iodine is mostly found in dairy products and foods that come from the sea, such as fish or seaweed. However, unfortunately these categories of foods are often some of the first to become limited when it comes to fussy eaters, those with sensitive tums, or those with particular dietary needs.

Young women in particular, are thought to be at the greatest risk of iodine deficiency, with up to 10% of young ladies thought to be deficient1. We know that this mineral is particularly useful for women of child-bearing age as it is important during pregnancy. 

What are some good food sources? 

Although dairy products and seafood are some key sources of iodine, there are some vegetarian sources out there too including kelp, cranberries, or potatoes, although the nutrient is just found in slightly lower amounts here. 

A kelp supplement may also be an option for those who are worried about not quite hitting the mark.

8 - Chromium

Why do we need it?

Chromium has an important role to play in terms of our blood sugar regulation which then has a direct impact on our energy levels, stress levels and mood. Spikes and crashes in our blood sugar will coincide with energy dips, not to mention changes in our appetite and mood as a result. Chromium may also have a direct effect on neurotransmitters such as noradrenaline which are important for regulating our mood.

Are we lacking?

Blood sugar issues are thought to be involved in a number of disorders which are affecting an increasing number of younger people nowadays. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and type II diabetes are some common examples and in many cases the symptoms can be managed effectively through diet and lifestyle changes.

What are some good food sources?

Some accessible food sources of chromium include eggs, wholegrains, potatoes and bananas, or you may also find topping up your levels with a good multivitamin is helpful.

9 - Omega-3

Why do we need it?

Lastly, but certainly not least, we have omega-3. Rather than a vitamin or mineral, omega-3 is a fatty acid but it is also ‘essential’, meaning our body can’t make it and we need to obtain enough through our diets. Omega-3 is naturally anti-inflammatory in the body, and has long been known to help support our brain functions and mood.

Are we lacking?

With a lack of education in nutrition, many people are still under the illusion that fats are bad and are ones to be avoided, when in fact we know this simply isn’t the case. 

With fats still being shunned by many of us, and as a nation not eating nearly enough oily fish, it isn’t surprising that we are running low in good quality omega-34!

What are some good food sources?

Oily fish is the obvious source of omega-3 so eating more fresh salmon, tuna, mackerel anchovies, pilchards or sardines can be helpful or you can also get fish oils in supplement form.  Some good vegan sources of this important essential fatty acid include walnuts, chia seeds or flaxseed. 

Need a helping hand?

The first port of call is often to look at your diet when it comes to supporting your mood. This may partly explain the increasing rates of stress, anxiety and low mood as we simply aren’t eating as well as we used to. There are too many convenience and processed foods now widely available, which are often worryingly deficient in key nutrients. 

Eating a variety of different foods and cooking from fresh is most definitely key however, sometimes life can just get on top of us and we need a little helping hand to get us through a particularly stressful time. AvenaCalm avena sativa drops are naturally rich in B vitamins and may help you to manage the symptoms of mild stress or anxiety. 


1. White DJ, Cox KHM, and Scholey AB. Effects of Four-Week Supplementation with a Multi-Vitamin/Mineral Preparation on Mood and Blood Biomarkers in Young Adults: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial. Nutrients. 2015, 7(11), (9005-9017)

2. National Diet and Nutrition Survey. Results from Years 7-8 (combined) of the Rolling Programme (2014/15 to 2015/16)

3. Murphy PK, and Wagner CL. Vitamin D and Mood Disorders Among Women: An Integrative Review. The Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health, (2008), 53: (440-446)

4. Bondi, Corina O. et al. Adolescent Behavior and Dopamine Availability Are Uniquely Sensitive to Dietary Omega-3 Fatty Acid Deficiency, Biological Psychiatry , Volume 75 , Issue 1 , 38 - 46

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