It has been drummed into us since an early age that we need to eat food that is healthy. We may even have been bribed to eat our broccoli when we were younger. But, has the message of good nutrition been properly explained? Was the last time you gave it any thought in grade 6 when your teacher did her best to teach you the ins and outs of the food pyramid? If we’re honest, twelve-year olds are not all that interested in healthy eating.

And now you find yourself with a teen in the house and you hear your parents’ voice coming out of your mouth at every meal time. “Eat your vegetables – they’re good for you!”

NUTRITION FOR HEALTH AND BEHAVIOUR

The first place to look is in the kitchen. When it comes to difficulty concentrating at school it is essential to look at what your child is eating for breakfast. If your teen is in the habit of skipping breakfast or still enjoys sugary, refined breakfast cereals, it may be time to intervene1.

By now, it goes without saying that good nutrition promotes good health. It has been shown time and time again that eating a varied diet that provides food from all the food groups is most likely to meet our nutritional requirements. When these needs are met, all of the chemical processes in the body work the way they were designed to. All of the systems in the body function well1

But, good nutrition extends further than health. Eating well and ensuring that all of the energy, vitamin and mineral requirements are met, has an impact on the brain too2. If your brain has access to the best quality energy and nutrients, in the optimal amounts, the chemicals that are responsible for transferring messages between the nerves, and the nerves themselves, are able to work more efficiently. These pathways are critical for our mood and behaviour. When things go awry, we start to see behaviours in ourselves and our teens that are not ideal2.

Your Teen’s Diet and Behaviour

6 KEY COMPONENTS OF A HEALTHY DIET FOR BETTER BEHAVIOUR

The way your teen behaves is the result of a number of factors, all coming together. Yes, nutrition is important, but you also need to consider fluctuating hormone levels, social pressure or anxiety, and possible underlying medical conditions. 

When it comes to diet, there are six key guidelines to consider. All of them work together to ensure that the chemical pathways in the brain are running smoothly.

1 – DOES YOUR TEEN EAT A VARIED DIET?

Too many children get caught up in their childhood eating patterns and fussiness. Vegetables have been long forgotten by the time they are teenagers. Their dinner plates are almost exclusively carbohydrate and protein. They are stuck on white bread and will only eat cheese spread on it.

These food choices could use some improvement. The more variety in the diet, the better. It becomes easier to meet your nutritional requirements when you are eating from a wide choice of foods. Studies have shown that the more balanced your teens diet is, the better their mood4.

The food plate model recommends dishing up a plate that is half full of vegetables, a quarter carbohydrates and a quarter protein5.

2 – EAT REGULAR MEALS

You would never let your car run out of fuel. But how often does your teen skip meals? 

Eating regularly keeps the fuel tank full. Teens have a higher energy requirement than adults. They are still growing and their bodies are maturing6. That is why they are constantly raiding the snack cupboard.

Our blood sugar levels determine how much energy we have and how well certain pathways work in the body. Fluctuating blood sugar levels influence some of the hormones that help to regulate our mood and help us to concentrate. When your teen skips meals or eats high GI foods that result in a rapid rise and fall in blood sugar, you are in for some big mood swings. He will also probably find it difficult to concentrate at school7.

3 – VITAMIN D

The human body is capable of producing vitamin D by exposing the skin to the sun. Not many foods contain significant amounts of vitamin D. So, spending some time in the sun is important to ensure that your teen’s levels of this vitamin are optimal.

Unfortunately, modern life finds teenagers spending more time indoors and less time on the sports field. Research has shown that poor vitamin D status can increase irritability, hyperactivity and poor concentration8.

4 – OMEGA-3

Making sure to meet your teenager’s omega-3 requirements is as important for health as it is for behaviour and concentration9. Good sources of these fats include: nuts, seeds, avocado pears, olives, olive oil and dark oily fish such as salmon and sardines. It is recommended that we eat at least two portions of oily fish per week to meet our omega-3 requirements, with top ups coming from the plant-based options.

If your teen won’t eat fish and doesn’t enjoy nuts or avos, an omega-3 supplement may be useful to improve concentration and reduce irritability.

5 – VITAMINS AND MINERALS

Vitamins and minerals play very important supporting roles in all chemical pathways in the human body. It is important to address any deficiencies. Those related to behaviour include magnesium and iron.

Adequate magnesium intake ensures that your teen’s stress response is optimal – increasing energy and focus when it is needed and returning to a calm state afterwards. Fruit and vegetables are good sources of magnesium. Your teenager should be eating a minimum of five portions per day. For example: 2 portions of fruit and 3 vegetables8.

Many children with concentration difficulties have been found to have low iron levels. Making sure your teen eats foods rich in iron will help to keep iron levels normal and help to avoid a lack of energy and focus8.

6 – DIETARY FIBRE

The most familiar role of fibre in the diet is to keep us regular. But it has a few other functions that are important for health – both physical and mental. 

Fibre in foods slows down the digestion of carbohydrate foods and helps to regulate the release of glucose into the blood. Keeping blood sugar levels stable is important to help regulate the mood and aid classroom attention and focus10.

Fibre feeds the good bacteria in the gut. A healthy gut microbiome has been linked to improved mood and behaviour. Although the research is still relatively new, the gut and the brain communicate with each other via the gut-brain axis10.

Your Teen’s Diet and Behaviour

CONCLUSION

A healthy diet that provides your teen with energy and a wide variety of nutrients will keep him healthy – both physically and mentally. Addressing inadequacies in your teenager’s diet will help minimize the mood swings associated with adolescence. A shake such as Learnergy is a convenient way to make sure that your teen’s nutritional requirements are met.

REFERENCES

  1. Ríos-Hernández A, Alda J, Farran-Codina A, Ferreira-García E, Izquierdo-Pulido M. The Mediterranean Diet and ADHD in Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics. 2017;139(2):e20162027. (PubMed)
  2. Beilharz J, Maniam J, Morris M. Diet-Induced Cognitive Deficits: The Role of Fat and Sugar, Potential Mechanisms and Nutritional Interventions. Nutrients. 2015;7(8):6719-6738. (PubMed)
  3. Tardy A, Pouteau E, Marquez D, Yilmaz C, Scholey A. Vitamins and Minerals for Energy, Fatigue and Cognition: A Narrative Review of the Biochemical and Clinical Evidence. Nutrients. 2020;12(1):228. (PubMed)
  4. Owen L, Corfe B. The role of diet and nutrition on mental health and wellbeing. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2017;76(4):425-426. (PubMed)
  5. Healthy Eating Plate [Internet]. The Nutrition Source. 2021 [cited 9 July 2021]. Available from: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-eating-plate/
  6. A Teenager’s Nutritional Needs [Internet]. HealthyChildren.org. 2021 [cited 9 July 2021]. Available from: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/teen/nutrition/Pages/A-Teenagers-Nutritional-Needs.aspx
  7. Is Your Mood Disorder a Symptom of Unstable Blood Sugar? [Internet]. Sph.umich.edu. 2021 [cited 9 July 2021]. Available from: https://sph.umich.edu/pursuit/2019posts/mood-blood-sugar-kujawski.html
  8. Villagomez A, Ramtekkar U. Iron, Magnesium, Vitamin D, and Zinc Deficiencies in Children Presenting with Symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Children. 2014;1(3):261-279. (PubMed)
  9. Kidd P. Omega-3 DHA and EPA for Cognition, Behavior, and Mood: Clinical Findings and Structural- Functional Synergies with Cell Membrane Phospholipids. Alternative Medicine Review. 2007;12(3):207-227. (PubMed)
  10. Happy Gut Bacteria, Happy Brain: The Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis [Internet]. Frontiers for Young Minds. 2021 [cited 9 July 2021]. Available from: https://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frym.2019.00015