Being a teenager is tough. Not only are emotions constantly running high but it represents one of the most unique and challenging times of your child’s life. It is literally a period of physiological, cognitive and emotional transformation where a child becomes an adult. It’s vitally important that teens start fostering the right habits to support this change because what they do now will either help or hinder their future health, habits and behaviours¹. What you teach them now will literally stick. This being said, as a parent (especially a parent to a teen) you need to pick your battles. What are the top 5 things that you should be focusing your time and energy on?

 

1. INVOLVE THEM IN THE DECISION-MAKING PROCESS

Young children seem to instinctively know what and how much to eat². As they grow into adults, however, this intuitive behaviour may be challenged by their desire to be autonomous. You no longer call the shots (flashbacks to when they turned two, anyone??). Your teen may also be susceptible to more external influences than ever before and peer pressure and acceptance may play a bigger role in their lives than family values³.

Food choices and dietary patterns can, and often are, used as a way to exert this autonomy, leading to periods of conflict³. For example, after years of happily eating animal products, your teen may choose to become a vegetarian. This could stem from social, moral or ethical realisations or simply because they think it may help them control their weight⁴. Instead of fighting them every step of the way, try your best to work together with them to come to a mutual agreement on how to best fuel their bodies. Genuinely listen to their needs, wants and concerns and think about ways that you can overcome these obstacles together.

 

2. FOCUS ON WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO THEM

Once you have started this type of open dialogue with your teen, you may start to discover what they hold near and dear. Spoiler alert, it’s probably different to what you thought was important ! Remember that teens are all about living in the now, so trying to get them to think about disease prevention which may only occur years down the line, may prove pretty difficult. When chatting to your teen about nutrition, try your best to link healthy eating habits to topics that they care about. For example, if you have a particularly sporty teen, focusing on how specific sport or activity related nutrition behaviours can improve performance. Your teen may roll their eyes or nod off to sleep if you start telling them how drinking a glass of milk is a nutritious snack that contains calcium and that the calcium will help increase their peak bone mass and as a result reduce their risk for osteoporosis later on in life⁵. However, if you tell them that a snack of chocolate milk post-sport/ workout can help increase muscle mass and improve future sporting performance through proper recovery⁶. They may be interested and keen to give it a try.

3. FAMILY MEALS ARE A MUST-HAVE

A ‘family meal’ is when a family unit consistently participates in any meal together. As a parent, you prioritise these meals and use this time to connect with your kids. Teens who have family meals do better. Not just from a nutritional point of view either, they do better socially, emotionally and academically. Family meals can also have an impact on your child’s relationship with food and thus also their likelihood of gaining unwanted weight or the formation of eating disorders. Despite their search for independence, teens continue to depend on their parents to take leadership with food that is provided and the structure⁸.

Interestingly, how we eat can be as important as what we eat. When there is a set structure to meal and snack times, children of all ages feel reassured. A loss of structure and support can possibly do more harm than choosing the wrong types of food. For example, a deliberate sit-down meal at a fast-food restaurant as a family is better than absentmindedly whipping through a drive-through and tossing a bag full of food to your kids in the back seat. Having an open kitchen where your kids continuously graze for food can spoil meal times and can also undermine the body’s ability to regulate food intake. A good skill to teach children is to save their appetite for set meals and snacks. By allowing them to understand and respond to their hunger and satiety cues, you are setting them up for success for the future. Eating on the run or eating out of the packet can result in overeating, which is detrimental, even if the food is nutritious⁸.

4. DON’T SKIP MEALS

Teens like to sleep in. It’s not really their fault, their circadian rhythms are about 2 hours slower than an adults⁹. Unfortunately, these lie-ins often result in a rushed morning with little or no routine and this can sometimes mean skipping breakfast. While eating three meals a day is not necessarily a hallmark of good health, eating enough food and sufficient nutrients is important for a growing teen and skipping a meal can endanger this. Breakfast skipping in teens has been associated with higher body mass index (BMI); poorer concentration and school performance; and increased risk of inadequate nutrient intake¹º.

Skipping meals can also lead to a vicious cycle of snacking and the types of foods chosen are usually convenience foods high in added fats, sugars, and salt (think of crisps, chocolates and energy drinks). These nutrient poor snacks (which are actually more like treats than snacks) tend to displace nutrient rich meals and may also lead to an excessive intake of energy and unwanted weight gain¹¹ ¹². This reinforces the idea of structured and regular meal and snack times.

 

5. EAT A VARIETY OF FOODS

Variety truly is the spice of life and diversifying meals will help encourage an adventurous ‘palate’. Not only will incorporating a variety of foods in your diet prevent taste fatigue but different foods contain different nutrients, all of which are important for proper growth and development. Unfortunately, many teens don’t consume sufficient amounts of micronutrients, specifically calcium, magnesium, potassium and vitamins D and E ¹³.

It’s your responsibility to determine when and what your child eats (aka mealtimes and food choices) and it is their responsibility to determine if they eat that food and how much they choose to consume². This division of responsibility between parent and child can help create a relaxed but structured environment. You can then focus your energy on creating balanced, nutritious meals containing protein, carbohydrates, fruits/ vegetables and healthy fats and not on fighting with your teen to ‘finish what is on their plate’.

Remember, what goes for your kids, goes for you too! Believe it or not, you are their role model and seeing you try new foods (even ones you never enjoyed before) may encourage them to do the same. When you and your teen are eating a variety of foods everyday, it is unlikely that you will become deficient in any nutrients, setting your family up for good health further down the line!

CONCLUSION

As a parent, we know you want only the best for your kids. We also know that it can be tough, especially as they get older. Hopefully these top 5 focus points will help you form a framework that you can work in, with your teen, to create lifelong and sustainable healthy habits. At Bioteen, we are committed to supporting you through this journey, not only through great tasting, nutritious and great quality supplementation but also through education. After all, it takes a village to raise a child!

 

REFERENCES

  1. Hueston CM, Cryan JF, Nolan YM. Stress and adolescent hippocampal neurogenesis: diet and exercise as cognitive modulators. Transl Psychiatry. 2017.
  2. Satter E. Secrets of feeding a healthy family. 2nd ed. Madison: Kelcy Press; 2008.
  3. Mahan LK, Escott-Stump S, Raymond J. Krause’s Food and the Nutrition Care Process. 13th ed.: Elsevier; 2012.
  4. Latzer Y, Aloufy A. Diet or health–the linkage between vegetarianism and anorexia nervosa. Harefuah. 2006;: p. 526-31.
  5. Baroncelli G, Bertelloni S, Sodini F, Saggese G. Bone mass increases progressively during childhood, but mainly during adolescence when approximately 40% of total bone mass is accumulated. Peak bone mass is reached in late adolescence, and is a well recognised risk factor for osteoporosis later in life. Paediatr Drugs. 2005 Jul; 5.