Healthy nutrition — or the lack of it – can affect the three A’s of a teen: athletics, academics, and attitude. During teenage growth spurts, adolescents need extra calories, and they should be nutritious ones. The irony of teen eating habits is at the very stage they need to eat very nutritious foods, they don’t want to. Second to infancy, adolescence is the most critical time for nutritious eating.
Most teens are overfed, but undernourished. Teens grow a lot, so they need to eat a lot, yet not only do they need more food, they need the right kinds of food.
- Teens eat more of their meals away from home, so that mother nutritionist is not always around to supervise their eating.
- Teens frequent fast-food outlets, where high-fat (and high in the most unhealthy fats, hydrogenated fats and oils) and nutrient-depleted food is the norm.
- The adolescent boy is into bulk, erroneously believing that more food builds more muscle. The adolescent girl is into being thin, believing that eating less equates with being slim.
- Menstruation increases a girl’s monthly iron loss, and it is often not replenished by an iron- rich diet.
- Tastes change at puberty. Teens, in general, increase their preference for fat. Boys also increase their cravings for protein-rich foods (the triple hamburger crowd), perhaps believing that meat builds muscle. Girls, most likely because of rising estrogen levels, crave sweets.
- Finally, as part of their declaration of independence, teens are resistant to any outside pressure telling them to do anything, especially what and how to eat.
- Model good nutrition. As with all ages, model healthy eating habits rather than preach them. Show your teens how to shop. Make each stroll down the supermarket aisle a nutrition lesson. Encourage your teens to help in shopping selections and meal planning so they learn the connection between good food and good health. One of the ways that we have been able to shape the tastes of our adolescents is to have frequent one-on-one “dates” or “sports outings” with our teens, where Martha or I would take our teen to one of their favorite restaurants with the provision that it must have an exciting and nutritious salad bar. Hopefully, watching how we carefully select the variety of fruits, grains, and vegetables that make their way to our plate will also make a lasting influence on the eating habits of our teens.
- Say no. When it comes to junkfood, you are bound to hear, “But all my friends are eating it.” Just because they have unhealthy and undernourished friends indulging in junkfood doesn’t mean your teen must be allowed to. Especially resist the pressure of packaged foods (which are nutrient-poor and loaded with hydrogenated fats) and soft drinks, which are loaded with sugar, artificial colorings and chemicals that rob the bones of the growing teen of calcium.
- Use teen thinking to your advantage. Teens want to grow, so you talk about foods that help them grow and foods that don’t. For example, many teens see some of their peers growing at a faster rate (which is genetic and not nutritional), so take this opportunity to talk with them about calcium-rich foods and how soft drinks contain phosphoric acid, which can rob them of calcium and interfere with bone growth. Besides growth, adolescents are appearance conscious. Talk to them about the correlation between nutritious food and healthy-looking skin. Athletic teens are concerned about their sports performance. Teach them the connection between nutritious eating and optimal exercise performance. (See )
- This form of teaching uses the principle of relevance. In order for a message to sink in, teens must believe the nutritional message has specific reference to them. Be specific. Tell them how it is going to affect their growth, their looks, their emotional feelings, their sport’s performance, or whatever seems to be the most important to the teen during that particular week.
- Eat more iron. When entering adolescence, males need around twenty percent more iron during the phase of rapid muscle growth. Girls need around 33 percent more iron once they begin menstruation. (See )
- Eat more protein. Males need around 25 percent more protein (approximately 1/2 gram more per pound of body weight, or usually around 15 more grams daily, than a preteen). Adolescent females, on the other hand, need less daily protein than males.
- Eat more zinc. Adolescent males need about a 33 percent increase in their daily requirements for zinc; adolescent females need about 20 percent more zinc than pre-adolescent females.
- Eat more calcium. Both adolescent males and females need around 33 percent more calcium than pre-adolescents (1,200 milligrams a day versus 800 milligrams).
- Get more vitamins. Both males and females show at least a 20 to 30 percent increase in daily requirements of nearly all the vitamins as they grow from pre-teens to adolescents. Even though it is always best for an adolescent to get his or her increased needs for vitamins and minerals from food rather than supplements, the erratic and nutrient-poor eating habits of most teens suggests that a daily multi-vitamin/multi-mineral supplement would be wise.
- Eat smart fats. Even though the brain has completed most of its growth by adolescence, it continues to make vital connections during the teen years. This is another window of opportunity for brain growth, when a healthy diet is important. However, adolescence is a time when there tends to be a lack of essential fatty acids in the diet for several reasons: Adolescents tend to eat a lot of saturated-fatty foods and foods that contain hydrogenated fats. Also, due to pressure to please their peers and compete in athletics, teens often restrict their fat intake in order to keep fit and trim. When they cut out fat in general, they also cut out healthy fats. Teen brains need more fish and fewer fries.
- Avoid the Barbie doll syndrome. Teen magazines can be hazardous to your child’s emotional and nutritional health, leading them to feel that they can never measure up to the perfect body and perfect skin on the perfect model shown in the magazine. Many teens equate how good they are with what they look like – an unhealthy perception that is fostered by the unrealistic photos and messages in publications targeted for adolescents.