“It’s hard!” says Central Seattle mom Jennifer “J.T.” Thames, laughing as she considers the question of how to ensure that her kids receive proper nutrition as she looks at her teenage son holding a handful of chips. Thames is the first to admit that she has less power over her teen’s nutritional choices as he grows older. Because Thames is an herbalist, she makes sure her kids get at least one nourishing infusion, a concoction she makes from medicinal plants, each day before they head out to face the junk food temptations the world has to offer. “I figure they are always getting something good every day if we do that,” she says.
Parenting teens can be rough. As if the developmental changes of the teen years are not hard enough, teens also have unique nutritional needs. All of this happens at a time when teens experience more independence, which translates to less parental control. How are parents supposed to ensure that their kids have adequate nutrition in the face of all of this independence?
Boning up: The basics
Start by knowing what teens need. “Calcium needs are greatest during adolescence due to rapid bone growth,” says Claire Kjeld, a dietician with MultiCare Center for Healthy Living in Tacoma. Forty-five percent of peak bone mass is gained during the teen years. “Aim for three to four servings of low-fat dairy or calcium-fortified foods every day to meet your teen’s calcium needs,” says Kjeld.
Mary Purdy, a nutritionist at Seattle Healing Arts, encourages parents to remember that the need for magnesium is equally important. Calcium and magnesium work together to build healthy bones and muscles. Some choices to help boost magnesium include whole-wheat flour, oat bran, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds and edamame (green soybeans).
Likewise, teens need iron to support their rapid growth, according to Kjeld. This is especially important for girls. “The onset of menstruation results in iron needs doubling for females,” says Kjeld. By the time girls are 14-18, they need 15 milligrams of iron a day. “Foods rich in iron include meat, beans and fortified breakfast cereals,” explains Kjeld.
‘The Healthy Trinity’
Also important to teen nutrition is what Purdy calls “The Healthy Trinity: healthy fats, healthy protein and adequate fiber.” During the teenage growth spurt, males gain 20 pounds per year. Girls gain more than 18 pounds per year until menarche, when it shifts to about 14 pounds per year. All of this weight gain is normal, and this healthy trinity is essential to support the rapid growth of the bodies and brains of teenagers.
Healthy proteins include beans, legumes, nuts, fish and lean meats. Purdy recommends organic foods, especially organic meats, because she contends that their nutritional content is higher. Healthy fats include olives, avocados, nuts, seeds and coconut. Good sources of fiber include whole grains, vegetables, seeds, nuts, fruits and beans. Teen boys need 15-35 grams of fiber a day, and teen girls need 16-28 grams a day. And remember, if your teen is very active or involved in sports, her nutritional needs will be even greater.
Why does all of this nutrition matter? If your teen isn’t overweight, what’s the big deal? Food affects everything, including mood, stamina, appearance and even school performance. “Kids who miss breakfast very often lack in attention at school,” explains Purdy. “They don’t perform as well. Their blood sugar drops, causing a lack in concentration.”
While her recommendations vary for each person, as a general rule, Purdy recommends three square meals and a couple of small snacks every day. But don’t get too tied to a schedule. “Check in with your hunger,” says Purdy. “It’s not good to eat when you are not hungry.”
Making fast food fab
All of the nutrition information in the world can only get parents so far. What can parents do to help teens eat well? Purdy suggests skipping processed foods and making ample amounts of healthier alternatives available. Green Lake mom Jennifer Kinard sets out cleaned, cut-up produce that’s easy for the kids to grab and eat when they walk past. She packs food to go rather than letting the kids grab fast food. She even hides extra nutrition in fruity smoothies. You can add ingredients such as flaxseed oil, protein powder, spirulina, avocado or even kale leaves into a smoothie with a strong citrus base, like pineapple or mango. Berry smoothies can even mask the flavors of steamed broccoli or beets.
If the idea of preparing all of that food makes you cringe, you can still use convenience foods if you are discerning. Purdy says, “There are a lot of healthy snack options these days. There are bars that mimic a candy bar and still have decent nutritional value. Look for things made with nuts, seeds and whole grain, with dates for sweetener. [Good ones to try: Larabar, Raw Revolution, Pure Bar, Zing Bars.] Choose healthier chips like sweet potatoes, beets and purple potatoes. In order for processed food to have nutritional value, it should have at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.”
Calling bull on Red Bull
The one food that Purdy really encourages kids to avoid is energy drinks, like Red Bull and the many other similar brands that market vigorously to teen and young adult audiences. “I think they are really risky,” warns Purdy, “especially for kids, whose neurological systems are developing. It is just too much caffeine and sugar for growing people — and probably for adults as well!”
Speaking of adults, “[B]e a model for healthy eating habits,” says Purdy. University District mom Laura Gilliam says, “My husband and I both try to model healthy eating, talk about our personal struggles with healthy eating as part of our daily family conversations and encourage the kids to take care of their bodies in all kinds of ways,” says Gilliam.
Soon enough, teens will be young adults and need to know how to eat healthy on their own. “Enlist them in the process” encourages Purdy. “Have them go to the grocery store. Have them in the kitchen with you.”
Gilliam hosted a cooking group with her teenage son and a group of his friends last summer. They made foods like homemade pasta, crepes and sushi. “It gave my son an appreciation and experience that food you make from organic, whole ingredients is far more tasty and enjoyable than processed food,” she notes.
How do you know when you need to call in reinforcements to help your teen get on track with his nutritional needs? “If you notice that your child is lacking in energy, is depressed, under or overweight, or showing delays in growth or other development, those things can signal nutrition concerns that a specialist can help with,” says Purdy.
Teen Nutrition Resources
Find the dietary fiber content of foods
Mary Purdy, M.S., R.D.
Bastyr Center for Natural Health Nutrition Services
Seattle Children’s Hospital Nutrition Services
MultiCare Nutrition Services