NUTRITION AND THE TEENAGE YEARS

Having teenage children can be extremely difficult for many parents.

Teens are going through a phase when a lot of unsettling changes - physical, emotional and social - are happening. They are growing up, becoming independent, making decisions for themselves and moving out into the world.

That means they are starting to make choices and face challenges that will affect the rest of their lives.

It’s a time when we feel that they really need parental guidance, but they are moving away from us. We can no longer control what they do, or maybe not even guide them the way we would like, and some of the choices they make seem very unwise.

So there’s this double bind. We want our children to be healthy and happy, and to set them on the path to a successful and fulfilled adulthood. We want them to take off and fly, but we see them getting into difficulties, and sometimes even into danger.

We want them to learn independence, but we also want to protect them and prepare them for the hazards of adult life.

One of the hazards is health problems. We know that our diet - what we eat and drink – has a big impact on our health. And, as our teenage children go off to school or out with their friends, we can be pretty sure that they’ll be getting a lot of the junk food that youngsters love, loaded with the fats and sugars that are so bad for their health.

The dangers

The dangers are very real. According to the Bupa health care organization, one in four UK 11 to 15 year-olds is overweight or obese. That’s a quarter of British children - 25% of them. USA Today puts the American figure even higher at 30%.

Both countries report that the percentages are increasing rapidly. The United States Surgeon General speaks of a health crisis.

In addition to suffering serious health problems in childhood (such as Type 2 diabetes), overweight youngsters are more likely to become overweight as adults and to fall victim to other serious and often fatal health problems, such as high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, and certain cancers.

The British Medical Association blames the rise in numbers of overweight children on two things: lack or exercise and poor nutrition. And, as the US Surgeon General points out, it is entirely preventable.

Getting it right

There is every sign that our youngsters are not getting the right nutrition, and that this could damage them for life.

There are two things we can do to set our children on the right nutritional path.

One is to introduce them to good healthy patterns of behaviour when they are young. They will most likely continue with these into their teenage years and eventually into adulthood.

The second is to provide them with nutritional supplements.

Ideally, we would like them to be getting a fully nutritious diet as a normal thing. If we are realistic, we know that this is unlikely. Their lives are very full, with friends, schoolwork, sport and so on, and this can result in erratic eating patterns.

They are also influenced by their peers, and may make poor food choices even if they know better – it would be very difficult to eat a salad when everyone else is tucking into fried chicken! So we can be pretty sure that even if we have encouraged good habits in our children, there will be gaps in their nutrition in their teenage years.

Those gaps need to be filled. Our youngsters need properly balanced nutrition for normal growth and development, and all the hormonal upheavals must also be dealt with to ease the transition into adulthood.

The best way to fill those gaps and to ensure that our children get full, balanced nutrition is to provide supplements. The teenage years are, of course, just one part of one's life experience. Check our Health Foundations page to see the basics of sound nutrition.

Suggestions

When your teenager is at home, encourage him or her to do the following:

* Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. There are many reasons for this but perhaps the fact that this can control weight gain, and help maintain a healthy skin might encourage teens to do so.

* Eat fish often. But it’s the oily fish – salmon, sardines, tuna and so on – that do most good. This is something many youngsters won’t go for, and supplements are the answer.

* Avoid sugary and refined carbohydrates. Again, these promote weight gain, general poor condition and irritability.

* Rather have complex carbohydrates. These supply the fuel required for the body to generate energy as well as important other nutrients such as the essential oils and fibre.

* Reduce fat intake by reducing dairy products and red meat.

* Eat when you are hungry, and stop when you have had enough – not when everything in sight has disappeared! Small healthy meals eaten whenever you feel hungry can be a good idea.

* Learn to drink water to quench thirst!

* Keep moving – daily exercise is essential. It reduces weight gain, reduces the risk of lifestyle illnesses and can even prevent psychological problems.

* Go out into the sunshine! Vitamin D is absolutely essential and it is made by exposure of the skin to UV-B rays from the sun. At present 1 in 7 American teenagers are deficient in Vitamin D mainly because of lifestyles that keep them indoors most of the time.

* Teens need to get enough sleep! Sleep deprivation has a negative impact on school performance, attention, memory, and has even been identified as a cause of weight gain in children.

* Use nutritional supplements wisely. This is something that we probably have to teach our teenage children, so let’s look at it now.

Teens and supplements

We have already mentioned the erratic eating habits of teenagers and the gaps left in their diets.

The best way to be sure that the gaps are filled is to take nutritional supplements. It is not worth the risk of having any deficiency at all, as this can lead to any number of problems from behavioural to physical.

If your youngster hasn’t been taking supplements since childhood he or she may not be too keen to start.

Whatever we do needs to be simple and easy. Teenagers don’t like to be hassled by too much fuss, especially if their parents are involved!

Also, incentives can work. Youngsters might be more motivated to take Vitamin A and zinc, for example, if they know that this can help prevent and even heal acne and other skin complaints.

The foundation: a multivitamin and protein

Maybe your youngster can be encouraged to do 2 simple things:

* Take a good multivitamin/multi-mineral regularly. This is the baseline to fill the gaps left by a teenager’s typical eating habits.

* To have a smoothie daily which includes a good protein powder and fresh fruit.

Offering more

Then for a receptive teenager there’s a lot more!

The above suggestion is really a bare minimum that perhaps any teen can be encouraged to accept. But there are certain other considerations that should be kept in mind.

Calcium and Magnesium

Calcium and magnesium are essential for strong and healthy bones.

From puberty onwards it is essential to get calcium. This will make sure that the bones are strong and dense with deposited calcium.

Later on in life, when leaching of calcium from the bones starts to matter, it is important to have a good reservoir so that the risk of osteoporosis is minimised.

Actually, bones are at their strongest during ones twenties – provided there was an adequate supply of the mineral in the diet during the earlier years.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is difficult to get solely from exposure to sunshine these days due to our lifestyles.

Current recommendations are that teenagers should be getting 2 000 IU per day - probably more even than adults because of rapid skeletal growth and maturation.

Vitamin D is essential for the absorption and deposition of calcium in the bones. It also plays a vital role in the transmission of nerve impulses. Vitamin D deficiency has therefore also been associated with learning and behavioural problems.

Muscle weakness is also noticed in Vitamin D deficient teenage girls.

A deficiency of Vitamin D may also increase the risk of cancer, heart disease and autoimmune disorders.

Other needs

Acne and other skin complaints are often caused or made worse by deficiencies in certain essential nutrients.

A bad skin is a teenager’s worst nightmare, so they might be encouraged to take additional supplements if a clear skin is a possible consequence!

* Zinc deficiency is the number one cause of pimples and spots!

* Vitamin A together with zinc can often clear up pimply skin and blackheads.

* A shortage of essential fatty acids – Omega-3 in particular – often causes skin ailments, including acne.

* Lipids and sterols are necessary for healthy cell membranes, and therefore a healthy skin. Only a healthy skin can be blemish free.

* Candida overgrowth is also a common factor in acne and other skin complaints. This condition can be cleared using garlic and probiotics.

Omega-3

Omega-3 essential oils have already been mentioned as important for a healthy skin, but they are actually essential for all aspects of health and particularly energy production.

Unless your teenager is eating fatty fish several times a week he/she is almost certainly short of Omega-3.

Lipids and sterols

Lipids and sterols are deficient in most of our diets because we usually choose to eat refined grains. These deficiencies lead to a lack of energy and stamina and to lethargy.

Often this is due to a sluggish endocrine system which also leads to the mood swings that are so challenging during the teen years.

Supplementing with lipids and sterols can bring harmony to the teenager and consequently the home!

Strengthening the immune response

Some teenagers are prone to frequent infections – colds, flu, in fact anything that’s going around at school. This is due to a malfunctioning immune system. Antioxidants such as carotenoids can go a long way to strengthening the immune response. And Vitamin C and zinc can ward off the infections.

HEALTH AND HAPPINESS

The teenage years are difficult for both the youngster and everyone else in the household. What happens during this period of a person’s life can set the pattern for a lot that follows, for good habits and for bad.

The nutrition that a youngster gets now will make a difference to his or her health and well-being right through to old age – and this is the time when the teenager is most likely to develop a taste for junk food!

Setting your youngster on the right track is a challenge, but it bring lifelong benefits.

A special note

Teenage girls, exercise and breast cancer

A recent, large scale study of 65 000 women between the ages of 24 and 42 showed that those who had exercised vigorously during their teenage years (the ages of 12 to 22 for this research group) were 23% less likely to develop breast cancer.

An example of “vigorous” exercise would be running for at least three and a quarter hours each week. Teenage girls who exercised more moderately but for longer periods (for example, walking for 13 hours each week) enjoyed the same benefit.

The researchers also noted that when women in the relatively young age group (24 to 42) do develop breast cancer, it is often particularly virulent and aggressive.

The researchers could not explain why exercise had this protective effect, but the message is clear – it is a very good idea to take plenty of exercise during adolescence and into adulthood.