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Study Says Poor Diet Linked To Teen Depression

Teens eating burgers from a fast food restaurant  

According to a new study from researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, one reason for teen depression may be related to diet, and in particular, a diet that’s high in fast food and minimal plant-based items. When researchers analyzed urine from a group of young people in middle school, they discovered high levels of sodium and low levels of potassium.

High-sodium foods typically include processed items such as fast food and frozen meals. Low potassium can stem from a diet low in healthy fruits and vegetables.

Depression among young people, including middle schoolers, is on the rise. An analysis of data from around the country showed among young people aged 12 to 17, the rate of major depressive episodes had gone up 52% between 2005 and 2019. Among older teens and young adults, the rate of depression, suicidal thoughts and psychological distress were up 63%. Along with the potential, that diet could be part of this increase, some of the other factors research cited as potentially playing a role in increasing depression among young people include chronic lack of sleep, using social media too much and fear of climate change.

Studies previously have looked at the links between fast food and processed baked goods and adult depression. A study in Spain looked at nearly 9,000 people over a six-year period and found a 48% higher chance of depression in the people who ate more processed foods. A large-scale analysis of researchers from the United States, France, Spain, Australia, Greece, and Iran similarly found a link between diet and depression. People who didn’t have a very processed diet but instead followed something more similar to the Mediterranean diet with fresh fruits and vegetables and limited red meat and processed foods had a lower risk of depression.

About the Study

According to the study, higher urine levels of sodium and lower levels of potassium predicted more depression signs a year-and-a-half after the urine was collected. The study accounted for variables including weight, age, sex, and blood pressure. Researchers only looked at a small sample of young people. It included 84 middle school-aged young people, and 95% were African American and from low-income homes.

Researchers used overnight urine samples to look at high sodium and low potassium at the baseline. They then collected urine samples a year-and-a-half later. Symptoms of depression were looked at through interviews with the children participating and their parents. The study did find an association between diet and depression, but researchers point out that it doesn’t show cause and effect—it does provide an indicator as to something that should be explored further.

Prevention & Treatment of Teen Depression

Teen treatment for depression often requires some form of behavioral therapy and in some cases, if recommended by a doctor, perhaps medication as well. There are ways to help reduce the likelihood of a teen dealing with symptoms of depression too.

Parents can encourage teens to do things that are good for their mental health such as disconnecting from social media, getting adequate sleep and engaging in physical activity. Nutrition is also important as we see the links between fast food and depression.

Nutrition is especially important for young people whose brains and bodies are still developing. Parents can encourage teens to reduce their consumption of fast food and processed food as well as their intake of red meat, fat, and sugar.

If you would like to learn about addiction treatment programs, including evidence-based treatment for teens with co-occurring disorders like depression, please contact Next Generation Village today.


Mrug, Sylvie; et. al. “Sodium and potassium excretion predict increased depression in urban adolescents.” The Physiological Society, August 23, 2019. Accessed September 25, 2019.

LaMotte, Sandee. “Fast food may contribute to teen depression, study says.” KEYT, August 29, 2019. Accessed September 25, 2019.

Suttie, Jill. “Five Ways Parents Can Help Prevent Teen Depression.” Berkeley, June 14, 2016. Accessed September 25, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options, and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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