The teen years are a time of increasing independence and responsibility. This includes the freedom to make lots of choices — including food choices. This sounds great and all, but it’s no secret there are multiple challenges and barriers to making healthy food choices for just about everyone. Imagine the challenges for teens! Here are just a few of them:
- Teens eat an increasing number of meals away from home.
- Teens are often influenced by their peers and their peers’ food choices, which may not be the best.
- Teens, both boys and girls, may feel pressure either to be thin or to “make weight” for sports or social events.
- Most teens have a desire for food that is quick and convenient.
Sound familiar? For these reasons and more, many adolescents too often choose too much of the wrong kinds of foods and drinks — soda and energy drinks, fast foods and processed foods.
WHY ARE HEALTHY FOOD CHOICES IMPORTANT FOR TEENS?
If you’re under the impression that healthy food choices aren’t important in “teenhood,” consider these statistics that suggest otherwise:
According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2008, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. Between 1980 and 2008, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5% to 18%. This is greatly concerning, given that obese youth are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. They’re also more likely to have pre-diabetes, putting them at higher risk for developing diabetes. Social and psychological issues such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem are also significant challenges.
Less common but also concerning are eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. A recent study from the National Institute of Mental Health found that about 3 percent of U.S. adolescents are affected by an eating disorder. Healthy lifestyle habits among teens, including healthy eating and physical activity, can lower the risk of becoming overweight or obese, and reduce the likelihood of developing disordered eating behaviors.
WHAT CAN WE, AS PARENTS, DO?
The dietary behaviors of teens are influenced by so many factors, including schools, communities, the media and entertainment industries, food and beverage companies, and families. So many of these factors are out of our control, but there are things we, as parents, can do to help. Here are a few ideas…
Make healthy foods readily available in your home! This means fresh fruit on the counter top, yogurt, cheese and sliced veggies in the fridge, whole grain crackers in the cabinet. This may take a little bit of preparation, but a home filled with tempting and less healthy foods will make it difficult to choose otherwise.
Make healthy foods convenient; teens will eat whatever is easy and convenient.
Ask your teen(s) for suggestions on what to pick up at the store and prepare at home. If they feel part of the process, they’ll be more likely to engage.
Remove sweetened beverages from your home. No matter your teens’ weight, soda, energy drinks, sports drinks, and fruity drinks do nothing for them.
If there are foods you do not want your teens to eat, avoid bringing them into the home.
Experiment with different recipes and food from different cultures. If your teen develops an appreciation for food, he or she will be more likely to make positive choices. Make good food cool!
Take your teen to the farmers’ market.
Have quick and healthy foods available for your teen to eat at breakfast (yogurt, granola bars, whole grain frozen waffles, whole grain cereal, fruit, smoothies, etc.). Make sure your teen sees YOU eating breakfast.
If your teen is in a sport, relate healthy foods to high performance.
Eat meals as a family as often as you can. This can be a challenge, but it’s worth it.
So there you have it — as parents, we can have some influence too! We can help our kids develop a healthy attitude about nutrition, appearance, and health when we empower them by asking for their input, support them by making healthy foods available, and encourage them by making healthy choices ourselves.
Anne Marie Kuchera, our Kids Plus Nutrition Consultant, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Dietitian.