Nutrition for Teens: Understanding the Effects of Junk food and Encouraging Healthy Eating Habits
Have a junk food addicted teen? We have recommendations for you
Wondering about nutrition for teens? If you are a parent or caregiver of a teenager you already know raising teenagers isn’t always easy. You might also be struggling with how to encourage healthy activity levels, get them off their smart phones and check in on their mental health. Many of the families we see in our nutrition counseling practice also struggle with how the effects of junk food consumption, trying to reduce it and get their teens interested in healthy eating.
This article dives into healthy eating suggestions and nutrition for teens and what to do if you’ve got a junk food addicted teen in your household.
What are teens struggling with when it comes to nutrition?
In our practice our team of Dietitians see teens and their families for a wide range of reasons including:
- general healthy meal planning suggestions
- picky eating
- sports performances
- digestive health concerns
- growth / weight concerns (underweight or overweight)
- ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)
- a wide variety of other medical issues
WATCH the Global TV interview on nutrition for teens
Are there more tweens and teens struggling with their weight?
Childhood obesity among children and youth in Canada has nearly tripled in the last thirty years. Youth that are obese are at a higher risk of developing health issues such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, sleep apnea, bone and joint issues, abnormal menstrual cycles as well as significant emotional problems such as depression and negative body image. Overweight teens are also more likely to remain overweight adults and experience bullying.
However, it is important to also keep in mind that there are also many kids that are a healthy weight and others that are underweight and struggle to take in enough food to fuel rapid growth and sport requirements. It is key not to make blanket statements about which foods are so-called “good” and which foods are so-called “bad” since many kids in this age group are struggling with body image dissatisfaction, disordered eating and are prone to eating disorders. Approximately 1 million Canadians have a diagnosis of an eating disorder and younger Canadians are increasingly at risk. Our goal as parents, caregivers and health professionals is to help establish healthy habits at home while promoting that all foods can fit.
What are the most important nutrition lessons to teach teens about?
The role of nutrition for physical health
It is no surprise that nutrition has a direct role for impacting growth, development, medical status and chronic disease risk such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis and more.
Nutrition also plays a key role in sports performance, menstrual cycle health and immune function.
The importance of what you eat for mental health
Nutrition has a direct connection to how you feel each day, your energy, productivity at school and also for your ability to concentrate and manageADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
What you eat also directly impacts mental health, depression and anxiety. For a full review read this previous article on our blog where we take a deep dive on this subject: Nutrition for Mental Health (what you eat influences mood, depression and anxiety)
An “all foods can fit” attitude
There are no good or bad foods, food is just food. Sometimes we eat it for nourishing the health of our body but there is also room for enjoyment of foods purely for taste, family traditions and social fun.
Teach teens and tweens how to balance “grow” foods (nerdy nutritious foods essential for their brain and their body) as well as how to incorporate “fun” foods (what we like to call soulful foods in our practice because they purely make your taste buds sing).
An understanding of how food marketing works
Teach kids and teens how food marketing can influence food choices. Teach them about how TV and online advertising work, product placement in movies and music videos, celebrity endorsements and sponsored posts on social media by influencers.
Often when teens become aware of how social media ads work, the profit side of how some of their favorite youtubers make a living and the curated nature of how content on their online feeds work, they naturally will become a bit more skeptical about what they see.
There is no one way to have a body
Kids learn what they live. Stop dieting and role model balanced eating and enjoyment of ALL foods yourself. Foster kind, compassionate language about your own body. Celebrate what your body can do and its strengths (not what it looks like).
Do not make comments about other people’s body size. Teach kids there is no one way to have a body. Just like when you head to the dog park you see dogs of many different shapes and sizes, human bodies are different shapes and sizes too. Even if you fed a great dane less or different food, their body might change a bit but it could never look like a cocker spaniel. Science has proven body weight is influenced by a wide range of factors, many of which we have little control over.
Educate yourself about weight bias so you can have better discussions with your teen as they compare themselves to their peers and are exposed to many confusing messages about appearance on social media.
What is the best way to get kids on board with healthy eating?
The number one most effective way to get your teenager eating healthy foods is to first look at your own eating habits as a parent or caregiver as well as the food choices you are offering and supplying in your home. We don’t have much control over what they will choose at cafeterias, convenience stores and fast food outlets but we can model good habits and choices at home.
It is also key to remind them of what they CAN do versus what they SHOULD do since no one likes to be told what they can and can’t have.
Involve kids in meal planning and cooking and get them to “drive dinner” while making healthier versions of their favorite foods.
- Make healthier meal nachos with lean ground meat or beans, grated cheese, corn, red peppers, salsa and guacamole.
- Pizza can be made healthier with whole grain crusts, lots of veggies and a plate of raw veggies and dip to snack on while the pizza cooks.
- Burgers are a popular choice using lean meat or poultry, whole grain buns and by adding a side salad and homemade fries (toss sliced potatoes or yams in olive oil with a pinch of salt and bake).
How can I manage junk food my kids want to eat?
It is no surprise that taste ranks the most important factor in why all of us choose to eat what we eat. This means getting most teenagers interested in eating broccoli is naturally going to be harder than getting them to eat chocolate chip cookies. The biggest thing you can do as a parent or caregiver is role model healthy habits and enjoyment of ALL foods yourself and have a bit of fun.
If you don’t include any fun foods at home, your child won’t have skills when they are away from home. If cookies are never in your home they may eat a dozen cookies at a friend’s house or when they move away from home live off sugary breakfast cereal and greasy fast food since they were never permitted to have these. Basic psychology suggests we all want what we can’t have. The healthiest, most flexible eaters have exposure to a wide variety of all foods.
Instead of telling your teen they can only have two cookies when they want to eat the bag, look at the timing and tell them they can have cookies after dinner or suggest they pair the cookies with a glass of milk and fruit to round out the snack.
What is the best way to manage after school snacks?
Remember that most teenagers are on what I refer to as the “see food” diet. What they see is what they will eat. Don’t expect them to go digging in the bottom of the drawer to find the fruit or to think about chopping up raw veggies.
The best way you can support them at home is having the healthy choices at the front of the fridge ready to go or on the counter to easily grab. Each week build healthy platters and place them at the front of the fridge (for example a fruit tray with yogurt dip, raw veggie and dip tray, whole wheat pita and hummus platter). Try putting the smoothie ingredients in the blender in the fridge for them to simply blend when they come home. Prepare some make ahead thin crust pizza slices or build snack containers that have fruit, sliced cheese or hard cooked eggs and homemade muffins. They key is making it easy to see and easy to grab.
Top after school snack attacks:
- Reheat frozen homemade pizza slices, pizza bagels, soup or French toast.
- Batch cook oatmeal with raisins and apples and portion in individual bowls to reheat.
- Ready to go bento box of nuts, dried fruit and whole grain crackers.
- Leave the smoothie blender on the counter and place yogurt and milk in the blender in the fridge so all kids have to do is add banana and frozen berries or mango.
- Hard cooked eggs and whole grain crackers or toast.
- Fruit and “yonut” dip platter (cantaloupe, melon, pineapple, grapes, berries served with a dip made from mixing yogurt and nut butter).
- Homemade muffins or energy bars and pre-sliced or cubed cheese.
- Premade yogurt parfaits with yogurt, berries and granola.
- Taco chips, salsa and guacamole.
- Platter of raw veggies, pita and hummus.
- Whole grain wrap with nut butter and rolled around a banana.
- Teach them how to make one-pot mac and cheese
For more healthy eating advice for your family and improving the nutrition habits of your teenager contact us for help. Often advice for your teenager coming from a professional may be better received than a parent.
Listen to a past podcase episode on how parents can help support healthy eating at home here.
You can find out more information about our virtual nutrition counseling services here: Personal Nutrition Counseling by Registered Dietitians / Online Nutritionists. Don’t forget to check your employer health benefits to see if you have insurance coverage that can help support the cost of nutrition counseling.
About Andrea Holwegner
CEO, Registered Dietitian, Counseling Practice Director & Professional Speaker
Andrea the «Chocoholic Nutritionist» is founder and CEO of Health Stand Nutrition Consulting Inc. since 2000. She is an online nutrition course creator, professional speaker and regular guest in the media. Andrea is the recipient of an award by the Dietitians of Canada: The Speaking of Food & Healthy Living Award for Excellence in Consumer Education....Read more