Nutrition and Its Role in Promoting Mental Health


“Hangry” is a term that has become increasingly popular. There are books focused on the topic of hangry, t-shirts, posters and even “hangry” kits or care-packages that you can buy for your friends and family. As funny as the term sounds, hangry is a real thing. It’s a phenomenon whereby some people get grumpy and short-tempered when they are overdue for food, or hungry. The emotional state associated with hangry is a result of real biological and hormonal changes taking place in the body that make it harder to focus and control emotions.

Many people joke about being “hangry” because it’s typically associated with acute hunger. The unfortunate reality is that many people, especially school-age children and teens, deal with the feelings of hangry at a chronic level.

Many people joke about being “hangry” because it’s typically associated with acute hunger. The unfortunate reality is that many people, especially school-age children and teens, deal with the feelings of hangry at a chronic level. It’s a daily, maybe hourly, experience for them. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the problem of child hunger is a vast one with one in five American children living in food-insecure households. For most school districts across the U.S., student hunger is a recognized problem and many school leaders and educators feel a moral responsibility to fulfill the basic needs of their students.

Because it tends to be easier to address, food insecurity solutions often focus on elementary-age children, while the problem is widespread among adolescents as well. In a report by the Urban Institute and Feeding America they estimated that nearly 7 million young people between the ages of 10 and 17 struggle with food insecurity in the U.S., a figure that’s likely grown since the recession, even as the economy has improved. (

Frequently, where we see hunger, we also see behavioral and mental health problems in youth. Research has revealed that food insecurity is negatively correlated with children’s ability to make and maintain friendships, ability to express feelings and ideas in positive ways, control of one’s temper, respect for the property of others, and the ability to express empathy and positive regard for others. ( Food Insecurity and Mental Health.pdf).

For teenagers, the stress created by food insecurity, in turn, can lead to a host of other issues. Hungry teens were found to be seven to 12 times more likely to exhibit behavior like fighting, stealing and disobeying teachers. Among 15- to 16-year-olds, food insufficiency was associated with depressive disorders and suicide symptoms after controlling for income and other factors.

In our desire to find solutions to the mental health crisis, Nutritional Neuroscience is shedding light on the fact that nutritional factors are intertwined with human cognition, behavior and emotions. Few people are aware of the connection between nutrition and depression while they easily understand the connection between nutritional deficiencies and physical illness. Depression is more typically thought of as strictly biochemical-based or emotionally-rooted. On the contrary, nutrition can play a key role in the onset as well as severity and duration of depression. The explanation of how nutrition plays a key role in mental health can be summarized in three areas of study:  micronutrient deficiencies, inflammation and the gut: brain connection. Each topic provides potential links to how an imbalance of nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, hormones, antioxidants, neurotransmitters and inflammatory biomarkers may be contributing to mental health problems and limiting a student’s ability to reach their greatest human potential.

Certainly, the causes of mental health and other behavioral concerns can be complex, and while nutrition may not be the only solution, as school leaders we do have the capability to evaluate whether our schools are maximizing the opportunity to make healthy food accessible to students of all ages. Hunger does not discriminate, therefore, no matter the percentage of free and reduced, consider asking the following questions about access to healthy foods in your school district:

  1. What is the percentage of participation in all school meal programs across all schools?
  2. Do all schools offer access to a healthy school breakfast program either before or after the bell?
  3. Do students have to wait in long lines during their lunch period?
  4. Is there significant food waste after school meals?
  5. Do schools have a policy for minimizing food waste and maximizing food recovery?
  6. Is there an opportunity to offer after school snack and/or supper programs in your schools?
  7. Do teenage athletes have access to healthy snacks/supper on campus?
  8. Do students 18 and younger have access to food on weekends and holiday breaks?
  9. Do students 18 and younger have access to food during the summer?
  10. Do schools have, or need, a backpack program?
  11. Do schools have, or need, an on-site food pantry?
  12. Are schools partnered with a local, community food bank or pantry?
  13. Do schools have opportunity for a school garden?

For more help assessing your school nutrition program solutions, please consider reaching out to the following resources:

  1. Your School Foodservice Director
  2. The State Agency that administers the USDA Child Nutrition Programs
  3. Sodexo Stop Hunger Foundation, Roxanne Moore RDN, Executive Director @
  4. Local Food Bank


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