The facts about healthy eating for teenagers
There’s a whole lot going on in the mind of a teenager. Hormones are raging, they’re asserting their independence and trying to find their place in the world.
While there are many things you can’t influence as a parent, what your teenager eats is one thing you can. And it’s not an insignificant thing. Dietitian, Shivaun Conn asserts that the habits your children learn in their teens, can set them up for a lifelong healthy relationship with food.
The challenge of healthy eating for teenagers
It’s one thing to feed nourishing foods to a fussy toddler. It’s another thing altogether to try and do the same thing for your teenager. They say “little people, little problems. Big people, big problems.” and that couldn’t be truer when it comes to healthy eating.
Why? Teens can often have atrocious diets. They reach for convenient snacks which taste good and are easy to eat. At the same time, their bodies are coursing with hormones that can affect their metabolism. Not to mention huge changes in their activity levels from their younger years. And then there is the influence of peers.
Eating for health in the context of these teen shifts is complex.
Shivaun notes that there is also the issue of language, specifically the language you as a parent use around food.
“How we talk about food can have a real impact on a teenager. If we talk about eating naughty food or use negative associations with food and our bodies, this can really influence a teen’s mentality. It’s so important to be careful of language.”
The lowdown on dietary needs for a teenager
As a parent, you know that when your teen is eating well, they’re fuelling their mind and body. A balanced diet of nourishing foods is what they need to focus at school and stay active.
But what exactly does that balanced diet of healthy foods for a teenager look like?
You might be familiar with the Australian food pyramid. While this has been replaced with the Australian Dietary Guidelines, the principle of eating a variety of wholesome foods remains. The guidelines recommend that each day adolescents aged 12-18 eat:
- 5-5 ½ serves of vegetables
- 2 serves of fruit
- 5-7 serves of grain foods (mostly whole grains)
- 2 ½ serves of lean meat and poultry, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, and legumes/beans
- 3 ½ serves of milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives (mostly reduced fat)
- 0-5 additional serves of the above or alternatively discretionary choices (such as energy drinks, biscuits or chocolate)
The ranges in the dietary guidelines are to cater for different ages and genders. This is due to the fluctuation in dietary needs for a teenager based on things like menstruation, lean muscle mass and level of activity.
While each of these elements is important, protein is particularly important for healthy teenagers. Protein assists in muscle repair and growth. It also plays a role in hormone production, which is happening a lot in a teenage body!
It’s common for teens to sleep in and skip breakfast, but as they say, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. For teenagers, this is the ideal time to load up on protein-rich foods such as eggs or yoghurt. It’s also a chance to squeeze some extra vegetables into the day. Try adding a side of avocado to their eggs, or adding a serve of spinach and Greek yoghurt to a smoothie.
How to encourage healthy eating habits for your teen
Shivaun suggests that healthy eating for teens is about two key things. Firstly, it’s about making it easy. And secondly, it’s about creating a positive and open culture so your teen can talk to you about how they’re feeling about food and their body.
Shivaun’s recommendations for encouraging healthy eating for teens include:
- Have healthy snacks for kids on hand in the fridge and pantry to make healthy eating accessible.
- Offer your teenager a variety of healthy options to pack in their lunchbox for school.
- Involve your teenager in the meal preparation or planning to make them more aware of how they’re nourishing their body.
- Talk to your teenager about peer influences and having confidence in their food choices while out with friends.
Once again, don’t underestimate the power of the language you use around food for both yourself and your teen. It could be what makes all the difference.
Shivaun Conn is an Accredited Practising Dietitian, Accredited Nutritionist and Certified Health Coach with particular interests in nutrition, lifestyle, executive health and health behaviour change.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board June 2021