Healthy eating: What adolescents need

  • By
    Jo Lewin - Nutritional therapist

The teenage years are known for being turbulent, find out what teenagers need in their diet to stay happy and healthy and why…

Teenager eating apple

The teenage years are key for experimentation which, with regards to food, can be used to your advantage. You can introduce new foods and might be pleasantly surprised when your child eats things they wouldn’t previously touch. It is at this age that teens might become more interested in cooking and begin to learn how to cook independently. With it, this brings about a new understanding of food, which yields many positives as long as teenagers are taught the importance of a balanced diet and good nutrition.

Teenagers today have a lot to contend with; exams, stress, exposure to unrealistic body shapes, fast food choices, alcohol and technology, not to mention the whirlwind of hormones, emotions and body changes that play havoc with confidence and wellbeing. The adolescent years are physically dominated by the production of sex hormones such as oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone, which bring about all sorts of physical and emotional changes. The teenage body typically undergoes a growth spurt and changes shape, all of which requires energy, vitamins and minerals.

Carrot wrapStorecupboard essentials and snacks:

A lot of the time, your teenager will want to graze or grab a quick snack. The trick is to ensure there is good food available when they want it. Make sure there is plenty of choice – treats like good quality chocolate, dried fruit and unsalted nuts as well as plenty of foods that provide goodness as a snack or a more substantial meal put together in no more than ten minutes.

When it comes to main meals, make sure you have a few good staples such as pasta and a decent loaf of wholegrain bread which teens can transform. A good breakfast cereal or porridge oats are useful so that they have a proper breakfast - with a chopped banana, a handful of berries or an apple.

Fritatta Keep a stash of fish fingers in the freezer, plus wholemeal pitta breads. Eggs are another essential standby – boiled, poached or in an omelette they make an easy, nutritious dish. The more you encourage teenagers to eat at home, the less chance there is of them eating in fast food outlets or skipping meals altogether.

Dieting

If girls are dieting or restricting their fat and protein intake, their menstrual cycle could be disrupted which has the potential to affect their fertility and bone health in the future. Menstruation means that each month, girls lose some iron which you should try to replace by including iron rich foods in the diet such as lean red meat, eggs, lentils, fortified breakfast cereals, dried apricots, figs, nuts, spinach, kale, broccoli, watercress, oats and seeds.

Iron also provides a key role in cell replication, so it’s essential for both boys and girls to eat enough to meet their growth needs. Rapid growth, coupled with lifestyle and poor dietary choices, can result in iron-deficiency anaemia which can make teens look and feel tired or breathless, experience poor concentration and affect mental and physical development.

Mackerel saladEating for your skin

Spotty skins is the cause of much teenage angst, so it might be that your child can be persuaded to eat more healthily on the grounds of vanity if nothing else! It is a myth that chocolate causes spots and that dairy products block the pores. What the skin does need is plenty of hydration and enough replenishing nutrients, such as zinc, vitamin C and iron. Antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids are also essential and can be consumed through a good combination of vegetables, juices and oily fish. Oily fish are also a rich supplier of protein, essential for growth and development.

Comfort eating and weight management

Banana breadComfort eating often signifies their emotions are in turmoil. The best way to encourage teenagers to have a comfortable relationship with food is to eat with them as much as possible and teach them simple cooking skills. Teenagers sometimes develop anxieties around sweet food which they perceive as being fattening. Help them build their confidence by introducing wholesome and healthy sweet dishes such as:

If you are concerned for your child’s weight and want to try and support them without scaring or upsetting them, consider the following:

  • Hydration plays a big part so get them to drink enough water throughout the day
  • Teach them five quick dishes they can make for themselves, even a sandwich is a good option! Lunchbox mains.
  • Encourage them to only eat at mealtimes, if they need a snack try raw vegetables, stewed fruits and natural yogurt, dried fruit, unsalted nuts or healthier flapjack. Or try your hand at making snacks like sunshine bars and cinnamon berry granola bars.
  • Keep to three meals a day plus fruit snacks. Insist on eating a healthy breakfast, even if it’s just a banana and yogurt or a smoothie. This will improve moods and energy and make them less inclined to snack.
  • As an eating pattern, emphasise plenty of vegetables and salad, lean protein such as chicken and fish and complex carbohydrates such as rice, oats, grains and potatoes.
  • Cook nourishing meals for the whole family to share.
     
  • Broccoli, chicken & cashew nut stir fry
  • Salmon noodle soup
  • 10 minute tuna & bean salad
  • Spaghetti with leeks, peas and pesto
  • No-cook chicken couscous
     
  • Make sure the fridge and cupboards are stocked with plenty of simple, nourishing foods so that hunger does not lead to snacking on something junky.
  • Don't ban foods just encourage moderation
  • Stay positive about food. If you can instil a basic love and appreciation of food rather than allowing it to become the enemy, you will have more chance of them developing bodies they are happy and comfortable with for the rest of their lives.

What are your experiences of feeding teenagers? We'd love to hear yout thoughts and ideas...

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