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How Nutrition Affects the Brain of an Adolescent

By Carolyn Robbins ; Updated June 13, 2017

Your teenager's physical development is obvious. Once a little boy, he now towers over you and wears his father's clothes. Your wispy little girl grows curves and all the beauty of womanhood seemingly overnight. Less apparent, though, is your teenager's neurological development. After infancy, the teenage years are the most important period of brain growth. Your teen needs a balanced diet to ensure that his brain makes the right connections and develops normally. Help your teen learn healthy habits by setting a good example.

Inside the Teenage Brain

In the prepubescent years, your child's brain goes through a period of unprecedented growth. The number of unmyelinated neurons -- cells lacking a protective sheath -- increases dramatically. In the teen years and into the early 20s, the brain selectively reduces or "prunes" these cells to reduce clutter and form organized connections for adulthood. Additionally, the teen brain myelinates new neurons by using parts of macronutrients including proteins and fats to form an insulating coat.

The Benefits of Balance

Some nutrients play a key role in adolescent brain development. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in cold water fish, are particularly essential for neurological growth. Unfortunately, teens tend to cut back on fat to slim down, or go to the other extreme and eat too many unhealthy trans fats and saturated fats found in fast food. Include fish on the menu at least once a week, and keep packaged and fast foods out of your home.

Alcohol Abuse

During the adolescent years of brain growth and development, your teen's brain is particularly susceptible to environmental influences. Of particular concern is alcohol use and abuse. Teenagers who begin consuming alcohol in early adolescence may experience memory and learning impairments. They are also more likely to become dependent on alcohol and engage in binge drinking.

Effects of Inadequate Nutrition

In an image-conscious culture, eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa are a serious issue for adolescents. Failure to consume adequate calories can cause structural changes in the brain of a teenager which may be permanent, according to registered dietitian Jane Mitchell Rees. Starvation changes a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which results in a multitude of problems. Teens with anorexia nervosa can't maintain body temperature and suffer from insomnia. Females may lose their menstrual cycle.

Learning More

In many ways, the brain is still uncharted territory. Scientists are just beginning to understand the complex relationship between nutrition and neurology. It's safe to say, however, that a healthy diet is essential for a healthy brain. Encourage your teen to adopt healthy eating habits by setting a good example. Discuss the importance of good food for a strong body and brain.

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