Teenagers and Junk Food

Monday, August 16, 2021

Burger and fries

As parents, we are often surprised by the choices our teenagers make – about their clothes, sleep, the amount of time that’s reasonable to spend on screens and their food choices. We might be providing plenty of healthy foods, yet they still prefer to fill up on burgers, fries and soft drink.

Maybe that’s not all teenagers, but most will certainly start exploring different fast-food options once they have more after-school freedom. Teenagers are continually growing and developing, and their brain is no exception to this. A recent review of teenage dietary decision-making¹ focused on how the developing brain impacts food choices. The pre-frontal cortex, that part of the brain involved in decisions, rewards and self-regulation, is the last area of the brain to develop. When teens eat calorie-dense, full-of-sugar junk food, their brains release dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter. Teenagers have more dopamine receptors in the brain than adults, hence their reward experience feels heightened compared with adults. Constant stimulation of this reward system may lead to difficulty with impulse control, which can carry through into adulthood.

And here’s the added challenge. Excessive junk food consumption may alter your teen’s brain chemistry, impacting both their reward and inhibitory pathways, impairing their rational thought processes and further increasing their desire for junk food.

So, teenagers are both more susceptible to the rewarding properties of junk food and have reduced ability to regulate their intake. Further, their rapid growth spurts can mask the impact of excessive junk food, so they may be within normal weight range. As for pointing out the increased risk of future obesity or heart disease associated with junk food? There’s usually little point – it’s too far in the future for them to contemplate.

What can you do to help reduce the amount of junk-food your teens are consuming?

Firstly, keep communication open. Ask them what they’re eating when they’re out with friends – and don’t judge their answers. Remember you were a teenager once too, and no doubt made some questionable choices of your own. If they are happy to share details of what they’ve been eating, they are more likely to have a general chat with you about healthy and non-healthy options.

Rather than attempt to rule out junk-food completely, explore healthy alternative options together. Encourage them to choose water over soft drink, to choose small rather than large servings, to add extra salad to their burger rather than asking for all traces of greenery to be removed.

Focus on diet quality, not quantity. Growth spurts may make it seem as if your teenager is a bottomless pit. Point out the value of nutrients for their growing bodies and brains:

–        Lean protein is essential for growth, muscle development, hormones and a healthy immune system.

–        Complex carbohydrates (in fruit and veg, wholegrains, legumes) provide fuel for bodies and brains.

–        Healthy fats (mono- and polyunsaturated fats found in oily fish, nuts, seeds, avocado and extra virgin olive oil) help with cognitive development, skin health and eye health.

Focus on how they feel. Ask them to pay attention to how they feel after junk food – not immediately, when their dopamine receptors are firing – but an hour or so afterwards. Let them make the connection between that sluggish feeling and junk food intake.

Encourage exercise. Exercise plays a significant role in improving mood, brain health and thought control.

Eat family meals as often as possible. Family dinners can play a protective role in both teenage mental health and reducing their odds of obesity².

Model healthy eating behaviours at home, focusing on how foods make you feel rather than your weight.

Most importantly, make sure your teenager understands that junk food should be kept to occasional rather than regular consumption.


1. Lowe, Morton & Reichelt, 2020. doi: 10.1016/S2352-4642(19)30404-3

2. Haghighatdoost, Kelishadi, Qorbani, Heshmat, Motlagh, Ardalan & Azadbakht, 2017. doi: 0172004/AIM.006

Photo by Robin Stickel on Unsplash

Develop a positive relationship with food