Raising a teenager can sometimes be a roller coaster. The usually obedient child suddenly becomes unruly, spends more time with friends, and no longer sticks to family rules. They may adopt a different eating pattern and are obsessed with their body image. Though this experience can leave you feeling frustrated, the deviant nutrition patterns can harm the teenager’s health long after they have outgrown the teenage years. Remember, it is during this stage in life that long-lasting habits are formed. Knowledge of how to optimize your teen’s health at this period can help avert some of the most debilitating chronic diseases like overweight, obesity, diabetes, and some cancers later in their lives.
Teenage years are a period of rapid physical spurts, sexual maturation, and mental, social, and emotional growth. It is a time when a child learns to think constructively, sets short, and long-term goals, and can develop social relations. Most children want to be independent, value acceptance among age mates, their decisions are prone to peer influence, and are concerned over their appearance. According to nutrition science, the teenage years present a time of great vulnerability to nutrition maladaptation with future developmental consequences. Consequently, understanding teenage eating disorders can go a long way to support healthy eating habits and avert nutrition-related health consequences of poor eating habits during the formative years.
The Unhealthy Characteristics of Teens’ Eating Habits
Teenage years are associated with independence and the adoption of life-long habits. It is common for the youth to establish unhealthy eating habits that impact their nutritional status negatively. For instance;
Weight perception is the foundation of unhealthy dieting and an attempt to lose weight. Adolescents who perceive themselves as overweight adopt unhealthy eating behavior to achieve their envisaged normal weight. Cases of restrictive eating, fasting, and forced vomiting after eating are some examples of measures teenagers use to attain the ‘ideal’ weight. This restrictive form of dieting predisposes teenagers to health problems due to inadequate nutrient intake to support fast growth. Excessive weight loss or weight gain, poor nutritional status, and general ill health are a few examples of what can happen to a child who practices unhealthy eating. Inadequate caloric intake reduces available fuel to function. Poor nutrition at this stage has a significant effect on brain development leading to reduced intelligence and poor cognitive development that affects future productivity and livelihood.
Meal skipping is another favorite habit that teens adopt in their endeavor to contain weight gain. Meal skipping is the omission of one or more of the main meals (breakfast, lunch, or dinner) in a day and interferes with diet quality and deprives nutrients leading to low energy levels.
When teenagers skip meals, they cannot get the total dietary requirements, which creates cravings, and they gravitate towards unhealthy meals to recover their energies. Unhealthy eating habits lead to poor eating patterns and excessive weight gain or malnutrition with inadequate nutrients.
More Fast food
Teenagers love eating out in groups at school, during sports days, or out with peers. They have an affinity towards fast foods for convenience and taste. Fast foods are often highly processed and caloric dense and of low nutritional quality. This eating pattern is unhealthy, it lacks adequate nutrition, creates a burst of energy, and it easily replaces healthy alternatives. Though a favorite for teens, this kind of eating predisposes the teenager to excessive weight gain and obesity which are known risk factors for chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers in adulthood.
Teens get hungry often and will normally make several trips to the refrigerator or the food store even before mid-morning. Snacking is eating any form of food in between the traditional meals (breakfast, lunch, or dinner). Most snacks popular among adolescents are energy-dense, highly processed, and low quality. Excessive energy consumption from highly processed snacks is associated with the accumulation of fatty tissue around the waistline that builds insulin resistance and increases the risks of metabolic diseases like diabetes.
Enjoy the “unhealthy” Food Group
In the food pyramid, at the tip, are foods that should not be consumed regularly and only eaten in moderation. When this type of food forms the bulk of the teen’s source of energy, then they are likely to miss out on essential nutrients compromising their health. Foods found in this small group are rich in sodium, added sugar, fats, and oils. When French fries, cakes, hot dogs, coupled with sodas form a large part of teens’ meals, it can be the genesis of poor eating habits.
Strategies to optimize Teens Healthy Eating Habits
Teenage is a unique time for the youth. It comes with a bit of freedom and independence. Teenagers have choices on what to wear, whom they associate with, and at times even what to eat. At the same time, teenagers are very conscious of their body image which can negatively impact their eating habits and increase risks of nutrition inadequacy with health consequences. To optimize teens’ health, consider incorporating key practices into their daily life. For instance;
- Ensure that teens have an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables every day
Fruits and vegetables are a nutrition powerhouse. Ensuring that teens get their daily servings of fruits and vegetables provides adequate nutrients and fibrous material. Vegetables help to fill them up while providing vitamins and minerals that their body require.
- Encourage teens to choose foods that are whole grains
Due to fear of weight gain, most youth moderate food intake sometimes excluding carbohydrates, skipping meals, or eating very little. All these factors can affect energy balance and are more likely to impact youth health. Encourage teens to eat food from all food groups and to incorporate carbohydrates that are complex, nutrient-dense, and are wholesome. Examples of whole grains include bread, pasta,
- Provide adequate protein in teen’s diet to build good muscles
Protein is important for growth and muscle building. Choosing lean meat, poultry, port, and dairy products is a starting point. Include both animal and plant-based sources of protein. Green grams, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds.
- Incorporate healthy fats into teens’ diet
Teens require adequate energy to drive their activities. Choosing foods rich in healthy fats from nuts, seeds, lean meat, oily fish, and soy products. Limit amount of unhealthy fats found in foods i.e chips, biscuits, butter, and cream.
- Encourage teens to choose healthy drinks
It is very tempting to reach out for a bottle of cold soda or juice whenever thirsty. Choosing a healthy alternative like plain water, tea, coffee, or any other healthy drink is important. Train the teens to always consider the nutritional value of a beverage and the health repercussions of sweetened drinks.
- Limit unhealthy sugars, saturated fats, and excess salts in teen’s diet
Teens tend to dine out with friends or in groups during school sports days. Teach the teens to wisely choose healthy foods and limit tempting foods that are rich in sugar, unhealthy fats, and salts. Instead of reaching out for cookies, French fries, cakes, chocolates, and candies, let them know the importance of eating a wholesome diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables for their health.
- Help the teens to virtually estimate food portions
Portion size control is fundamental to healthy eating habits. Train the teens on how to estimate adequate food portions. When estimating food portions, consider daily activities and energy expenditure and vary accordingly. Choose food that is slowly absorbed, has proteins in it, contain fruits and vegetable, and is wholesome.
- Provide an avenue for physical activity to increase energy expenditure
Though teenage years are characterized by high energy and a bounty of activities, technology has come to deny the young teen’s time to go out and play. Sitting in one position for long period is scouting for excessive weight gain. Being mindful of time spent in front of the television set enjoying the latest series is a sure way to add a few more pounds. Create time in their daily activity to go out and play. Being engaged in the local sports activities is a great way to remain active.
- Ensure that teens have an adequate night’s sleep
It is during sleep that the body recoups and repairs. It is recommended that teens get enough sleep to allow the body to recoup, grow and develop. Loss of sleep is one factor that can lead to mood changes and aggressive behavior. Make sure that the teen gets at least 6 to 8 hours of sleep every day. Discourage use of cellphone screen for entertainment in the bedroom. It is one factor that deprives teens of enough sleep hours and leads to poor sleeping habits.
- Be a role model
Despite their increased independence, teens are very fond of their parents and guardians. Being a role model can help teens to adopt healthy eating habits. A good role model seeks knowledge and information on healthy food choices and understanding of components of a balanced diet suitable for a teenager. A balanced and nutrient-dense diet has multiple significance in growth and development. It provides essential nutrients to support rapid growth, physiological processes, and increased outdoor activities.
For teens to acquire healthy food habits, practice is very key. Engaging teens in your weekly grocery shopping trips to give them opportunities to participate in family food budgets. Teach them how to make healthy food choices by replacing highly processed foods with healthy alternatives that have similar tastes and attractions. Teach them how to read and interpret food labels and ingredient lists.
Another opportunity to encourage teens to eat healthily is to involve them in family meal planning. For example, teens can work with you in choosing the type of meal that a family can have for dinner. This way they get to experience choosing a healthy meal and learn different cooking methods like how to steam vegetables, grill chicken, roast potatoes, or even make vegetable salads. Food behavior learned in teenage years when habits are formed will help them make healthy food choices when eventually they depart from home and live independently.
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