During the teen years, nutrition often takes a back seat. It can be difficult getting adequate food and proper nutrition due to busy schedules, social pressures to eat or not eat, as well as food preferences. However, with the tremendous growth and development during these years, nutrition is essential.
Brain Development and Function and Nutrition
Our brain and nerves are made of fat. Because teens’ brains and nerves are still developing, they need a fair amount of fat to support this process. Fat is also needed to successfully carry and deliver essential neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. The brain uses carbohydrates as its fuel source, so getting good sources of carbohydrates (grains, starchy veggies, fruits, and milk) daily is important too. Undernutrition can actually shrink the size of the brain, making it difficult to think, function, and process. It can also increase Depression, Anxiety, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder symptoms/characteristics. Getting good sources of fat and carbohydrates are always important, but during these years of development, it is essential to ensure the body is strong and healthy for decades to come.
Bone Health: It’s not just about Calcium
Adolescence is the time when your body deposits minerals into bone, building up bones and making them stronger. It is critical to have an adequate calcium intake, healthy vitamin D levels, and overall proper food/nutrition. Vitamin D is needed to help absorb calcium from your gut; without it, calcium cannot be absorbed. Fat is needed to absorb vitamin D. Adequate food/nutrition are also needed to make hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone. When you don’t get adequate nutrition, hormone levels drop. This may not seem like a big deal, but when hormones levels are low, minerals cannot be deposited into bones. We lose the ability to put minerals into bones at about age 25, after that, what bone you have is what you will have for the rest of your life. When there is a drop in nutrition and a loss of hormonal production, this increases the risk of osteoporosis. Teens with the highest risk for low hormone levels and osteoporosis are athletes and those with eating disorders. Additionally, girls with low hormone levels will often lose their period or not start it. Sometimes birth control pills are used to regulate periods, but birth control has not been shown to help with improving bone health. The best recipe for healthy bones is good overall nutrition intake and ensuring adequate calcium and vitamin D.
Does Your Teen Ever Feel Tired and Cranky?
Let’s face it, teens can get tired and cranky… heck, most of us adults can too! Teens need more sleep than adults though and often don’t get enough. Our bodies grow and our brains regenerate while we sleep. If we don’t get enough sleep, we can have trouble focusing, become more irritable, have hormonal dysregulation, and may not grow or regenerate as well as we could. Add poor nutrition to lack of sleep and you have even bigger problems. Anxiety, depression, rigidity, fatigue, and hormonal regulation all get worse when we are undernourished. If your teen is tired and cranky, it could be a lack of sleep or nutrition, or both.
Potential Red Flags: I Just Want to Eat “Healthy,” ”Lose Some Weight,” “I’m just not that hungry”
Every eating disorder starts with a diet/restriction and you never know who has the propensity to develop an eating disorder. It’s a bit simplistic, but if you never restrict, you won’t develop an eating disorder. When teens have an intention to eat in a more healthful way, they often lack the knowledge of what that means and how to do it. It’s also important to be mindful of teens who take ADHD medication or use caffeine and sugar substitutes because these can alter a person’s appetite, making it hard to eat adequately and meet nutrition needs.
Here are some red flags for undernutrition and/or disordered eating:
- Your teen wants to become vegetarian/vegan, follow a ‘clean/raw’ diet, or reduce their carbohydrate/fat intake.
- You don’t see your teen eating as much as they used to (skipping meals/snacks).
- Your teen has ‘excuses’ for not eating (I ate at a friend’s, when you weren’t home).
- Your teen has lost weight.
- Your teen is more irritable and rigid.
- Your teen has trouble focusing and processing.
- Your teen is more interested in or controlling about cooking/eating.
- Your teen is not sleeping well.
- Your teen has lost her period (or it hasn’t started when it probably should have).
- Your teen is binging or overeating at times.
- Your teen has erratic eating habits.
- There is body/fat talk and body checking.
- Your teen has a sudden interest in being physically active or can’t sit still.
If you are at all concerned, consult with an eating disorder specialist. It is better to be safe than sorry, as the earlier one gets intervention, the better the prognosis.
What Do We Want a Teen’s Diet to Look Like?
Nutritional needs vary greatly from teen to teen, so it is really hard to specify what qualifies as adequate nutrition for all teens. In general, teens need 3-4 meals and 2-4 snacks per day with foods from all the different food groups. Snacks should include foods from different food groups such as apples and peanut butter, cheese and crackers, or milk and cookies. Active teens, athletes, and teens who are going through a growth spurt will need a lot of food. If your teen complains of being hungry all the time, see what you can do to get creative together to add more nutrient dense foods to their diet, such as nuts, trail mix, juice, full fat dairy products, dried fruit, milk shakes, and treats.
Nutrition is essential during the teen years, and it can be difficult to ensure your teen receives adequate nutrition due to hectic schedules and limited time for food during and after school. Packing lunches and snacks can help, along with pre-planning when and where your teen will get food. If you or your family are having difficulty getting adequate nutrition, consider consulting with a registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in working with teens and families.
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TEEN THERAPY CENTER CAN HELP!
Would you like additional guidance in this area? Teen Therapy Center provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.