It’s true that some teenagers think little about a healthy balanced diet, whilst others become overly invested in its pursuit. Poorly planned food choices for any teen are unlikely to meet nutritional needs for the massive spurt of growth and intellectual development that happens between the ages of 11 and 17. Some degree of knowledge is required to help choose the right foods for our bodies! Eating is part of our day-to-day survival: what we think of as wellbeing – growth, development, repair, protection. Immune function in our gut is activated and influenced by our choices. Self-nourishment is what we are talking about here. Increasingly we are aware that food choice influences our mind (mood, thoughts, feelings) as well as our body.

Food choice changes our mood

Brain chemistry changes our mood by regulating hormones and neurotransmitters such as “pleasure” dopamine, “fight-flight” adrenalin and “hunger” ghrelin, all of which affect emotions, bodily sensations, appetite and behaviour. Fear, for example causes a surge of the adrenalin, making your heart beat fast, getting blood to muscles – just incase you have to run very fast to get away from the danger – it makes sense that this suppresses the appetite! Ghrelin, on the other hand, is a powerful appetite-booster, increasing in response to the presence of growth hormone during puberty. Eating food changes our mood and activates our brains reward system via dopamine, producing feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Sweet, highly palatable foods, if eaten in excess will down-regulate dopamine, causing us to crave more and more of these foods, in order to feel those positive emotions. This will be familiar to many. Using food habitually to manage emotions eg. eating when we feel sad can become problematic, setting a cycle of cravings, down regulating dopamine, avoiding dealing with the difficult feelings and may lead to eating patterns which become hard to change.

Gut Feelings

At another level, the gut bacteria interacts with the surrounding nerves which communicate with the brain nerves called neurones, an information highway referred to as gut-brain axis or the enteric nervous system. Bacteria in the gut, collectively called the gut microbiota, communicates with the brain to influence hormone and neurotransmitter production. Each persons microbiota is as unique as their finger print, and is heavily influenced by what we put in our bodies eg. food, fibres, medicines and how we live eg. exercise, stress, sleep but also mode of birth, breast feeding and early life nutritional programming. A balanced diet – a wide range of fresh nutritious foods eaten at regularly intervals – helps maintain a steady dopamine response, which regulates blood sugar levels, limits cravings and maintains a diverse gut microbiota. Not only does this steady our mood via the brains hormonal reward system, a diverse diet supports emotional regulation in the gut through production of the neurotransmitters such as serotonin, directly influencing our feelings and behaviour. Food for Thought! A new way of thinking about “you are what you eat” perhaps?