Nutrition for teens
Emily Kennedy MSc RHN
Too many soft drinks and not enough fruits and vegetables? Help your teen make the switch from fast food to satisfying whole food nutrition.
Alexandra, 16, opened her lunch of tuna and spinach. “Oh joy, salad,” she thought. Then, a friend looked over and remarked that it looked “really good.” Really good? Suddenly, it occurred to Alex that it was good, and—whoa!—she was actually enjoying eating it.
Teens need more green
Alexandra was once among the majority of busy teenagers who start their day with whatever they could grab (usually refined carbs); snack on cookies, crackers, candy, and the like between meals; and might have a side of veggies with meals—but never as the main entree, and certainly not because she liked veggies.
According to the most recent Canadian Community Health Survey, done in 2004, 53 percent of males aged 14 to 18 are not getting the minimum number of servings of vegetables and fruit on a daily basis. Among the girls, 63 percent consumed less than the bare minimum. That’s right, the girls are actually eating less of the good stuff than the boys! The minimum in 2004 was five servings of vegetables and fruit, combined, but has since been upped to seven servings for teen girls and eight for teen boys.
What’s happening here? Why is more than half of our teen population not getting vegetables at every meal, or snacking on fruits and veggies?
Parental purchases versus food product marketing
To be sure, veggies and fruits suffer from a lack of marketing, missing the glitzy packaging and ads that processed foods enjoy. However, household availability and parental food choices have a significant influence on the veggie and fruit consumption of teens. While peer pressure also plays a role, parents can influence their teens by setting a good example and keeping the house stocked with healthy choices.
Here are a few ways to help you and your teen get your veggies and fruits:
There! You’ve got about eight servings of vegetables and fruit into your teen starting with breakfast. How hard was that?
Just say “no” to sugar
While teenage boys may be doing a little better than the girls at getting their veggies and fruits in, they are also the greatest consumers of sugar among all Canadians, according to the most recent data (from 2004). Topping the charts, they consume 41 tsp (172 g) of the refined sweet stuff every day.
A large percentage of the sugar our teens are consuming comes from sugary drinks, including soft drinks and even fruit drinks. Caffeinated drinks, energy drinks, and sport drinks are also culprits. Additionally, be cautious when choosing a fruit juice and make sure to avoid added sugars. Given the impact of liquid sugar, the number one recommended beverage is water.
Adopt the 80-20 rule
Does avoiding sugar mean you and your teen can never have any treats? No, of course not. Being able to enjoy the occasional treat and then return to higher-nutrient food choices is a very important part of healthy eating behaviours and psychology. Instead of feeling constantly restricted, teens should learn to indulge a little without going overboard and out of control.
Eating natural whole foods 80 percent of the time and then having a few treats once a week is a great rule for achieving balance between the good and “bad” foods. Referred to as the “80-20 Rule” in Winning the Food Fight by Dr. Joey Shulman (John Wiley & Sons Canada Ltd., 2003), this approach helps teens really enjoy their treats instead of becoming desensitized by constant sugar, salt, and fat intake.
Warning: eating more vegetables and fruits can cause taste buds to become more sensitive to refined sugar and salt. Consequently, previously enjoyed sweets and desserts may sometimes taste too sweet to enjoy.
Consult a professional—and be prepared for change
With the help of a registered nutritionist, Alexandra went from rarely choosing fruits and vegetables to eating them at every meal and even every snack. At times, she even preferred fruit over cake, candy, or the other non-nutritive items available. On occasion, this change even caught her health-conscious parents off guard as they realized they needed to buy more fruit!
However, getting a teen to eat lean and green is a one-step-at-a-time process with many missteps along the way. For Alexandra, the process was expedited by the guidance of a health professional who empowered her with knowledge about food prep, nutrition, metabolism, and even the psychology of eating.
Does your teen need supplementation?
Given the overwhelming amount of junk foods teens are consuming, concerned parents may turn toward supplements to try to give their children what they aren’t getting from food. The first rule of thumb is to think food first. Correct what you can in your teen’s diet, add the veggies and fruit, subtract the sugar and refined carbs, then fill in the gaps with supplementation.
Consider seeing a naturopath or registered nutritionist for a diet analysis and nutrient testing to determine if your teen is indeed deficient in any key vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, hormones, or neurotransmitters. Then you’ll know for sure that the supplement regimen you’ve chosen for your teen is addressing a specific problem that is affecting their development.
Supplements that are generally safe for teens and could only help as “nutritional insurance” for a diet that is not 100 percent natural and well-balanced include
In general, teens can have the same supplements as adults since their nutrient requirements are quite similar. However, again, even with commonplace supplements, you can get formulations that are more specific to your teen when you consult a natural health professional who is trained in individualized nutrient supplementation (called orthomolecular medicine). As always, check with your health care practitioner before taking a new supplement.
Tips to shut down sugar—and tricks to accomplish each tip
Eat protein regularly, especially at breakfast.
Munch on fruit for a sweet fix.
Satisfy with no- or low-calorie foods with sweetness.
Substitute sugar-focused stress eating with something fun and active every day to unwind.