You thought it was hard raising a toddler? Wait until you have a teen. They’re more independent, less easily persuaded, and often just as likely to have massive meltdowns. And while you’ll avoid earaches and frequent stomach bugs, teens are more susceptible to serious health issues, like stress and weight gain. Help your teen thrive with these tips that address six crucial concerns.
It’s one of the most crucial aspects of teen health—and the most universally neglected. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 10 to 12 hours a night for teens, but studies show most kids bag a fraction of that. In a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey of 12,000 high school students, only 900 said they got the recommended amount, and 39 percent slept 6 hours a night or less. Kids miss sleep because of stress, busy schedules, or late-night screen time. Over time, sleepless nights impact immunity, weight, learning, and emotional health. Simple changes like going to bed at the same time every night, avoiding caffeine, and minimizing pre-bed stress can help. If your teen suffers from insomnia, try gentle herbs like chamomile, passionflower, or lemon balm, or homeopathic sleep combination remedies.
According to the CDC, obesity has more than tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years, and in 2010, more than one-third of adolescents were overweight or obese. It’s a serious health issue; in one study, 70 percent of obese teens had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and were more likely to be prediabetic. If your teen is overweight, have a heart-to-heart; stick to discussion about the health dangers to avoid triggering body image issues. Model healthy eating, don’t buy excessive amounts of candy or sugary snacks, and discourage quick-fix solutions like pills or starvation diets. And ban sodas: in one study, teens who swapped sugary sodas for non-caloric beverages lost weight, even when they made no other changes.
It’s not just for adults; in fact, as many as 30 percent of high school students surveyed in a recent study said they were stressed to “serious” levels. And stressful life events in childhood can predispose teens to weight gain; in one study, experiencing many negative life events was linked with a 50 percent higher risk of being overweight by the age of 15. Help teens negotiate stress: encourage them to exercise, eat regularly, get enough sleep, and avoid excess caffeine. Supplements like lemon balm, B vitamins, omega-3 fats, and GABA can help soothe excess stress as well. Also, teach and model healthy stress-management techniques like muscle relaxation and time management. And encourage your kids to avoid perfectionism; good enough is often enough.
Hurried teens often miss breakfast—in one study, 13 percent of high school students said they regularly skipped the morning meal—but it’s critical for brain function, energy, concentration, academic performance, and healthy weight. Breakfast should focus on protein, with enough fat to sustain energy. Try quick, healthy options like smoothies fortified with protein powder, egg burritos, breakfast pizzas, sausage omelet pitas, or well-formulated energy bars. Grab-and-go breakfasts are best.
5. Screen time
A recent study found that teens spend an average of seven hours and 38 minutes per day, seven days a week, on cell phones or in front of computers, TVs, or video games. That means seven hours of inactivity, which can impact weight. In addition, other studies have shown excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, eating disorders, and sleep issues; researchers say the blue light emitted by computer screens can interfere with the body's natural circadian rhythms, disrupting sleep. Help your teen cut back on screen time: come up with a list of household rules together to help limit screen time, like no TV until homework is completed, no electronics after 8 p.m., or no texting during meals; create a system of rewards and consequences if the rules are violated. And be prepared to follow them yourself to set a good example.
Between busy schedules and social activities that revolve around food, few teens eat a truly balanced diet. A well-formulated multivitamin can fill in substantial gaps in nutrition. Look for one that’s formulated specifically for teenagers. Others to consider:
Omega-3 fatty acids. Teen diets are often lacking in omega-3s; supplements can improve the behavior, mood, and attention span of adolescents.
Calcium. Bones grow quickly during the teen years, and calcium is critical; look for a formula that also contains other bone-building nutrients like vitamin D.
Iron. Teenage girls in particular need adequate iron.
Probiotics. Inflammation in the gut can manifest as acne; probiotic supplements can help by restoring health gut flora.
FIVE SUPPLEMENTS FOR TEEN ATHLETES
Teen athletes train hard, but because they’re still growing and developing, some sports supplements aren’t safe or appropriate. Be smart: first, determine if a supplement is even necessary. If so, choose safe ones that promote recovery, avoid muscle breakdown, and enhance nutrition. And always check with your teen’s doctor before starting a supplement. Some to consider:
Protein powder.Hard-training teens may need up to 130 grams of protein a day, hard to do with diet alone. Whey protein is quickly digested and is especially high in leucine, an amino acid that stimulates protein synthesis. Casein powder can balance whey protein by providing more sustained amino acid release. For vegan athletes, look for a blend of pea, rice, and hemp proteins.
Creatine,especially popular among bodybuilders, helps increase muscle mass by replenishing ATP, the muscles’ energy source, and increasing stamina and performance. It’s produced by the body and occurs in meats, so vegan athletes may be lacking. Monitor doses carefully; at high levels, it can interfere with kidney function.
Quick carbs.During intense exercise, glucose stores are quickly depleted. Well-formulated energy bars, snacks, and ready-to-drink beverages can provide a quick source of energy before, during, and/or after exercise to replenish carb stores, increase recovery, and promote muscle gain. And they’re good alternatives to sugary snacks and fast foods.
Amino acids.The building blocks of protein, amino acids are rapidly depleted during workouts. If they’re not quickly replenished, the body will use its own muscle tissue. Amino acid supplements decrease muscle damage and help repair muscles. Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a group of essential amino acids, including leucine, isoleucine, and valine, and are safe and effective.
Recovery drinks.Most energy drinks contain caffeine and stimulants that may boost energy and alertness, but aren’t appropriate for kids; and caffeine is a potent diuretic that can lead to dehydration. Look for stimulant-free recovery drinks that contain amino acids, carbs, electrolytes, vitamins, and/or minerals to rehydrate gently and replenish nutrients.
PREVENT AN EATING DISORDER
Five ways to teach healthy eating
- Skip the clean-plate club. Teach kids to eat according to internal cues instead.
- Don’t make any food “bad.” When your kids eats pizza, bagels, or other “bad” food—which they will—you don’t want them to feel guilty about it. Instead, talk about “sometimes” versus “always” foods, and let junk food be an occasional treat.
- Reframe cultural messages. Talk to your kids about media messages that only certain body types are acceptable. Listen to their self-image issues, and remind them that healthy bodies come in many different shapes and sizes and not to judge a body’s worth by how it looks.
- Don’t use the “D” word. Dieting, versus listening to the body’s impulses, sets kids up for problems. Explain that unnecessarily restricting calories can impact growth, brain development, and overall health. If your teen or tween is overweight, try a shift in eating that emphasizes whole foods instead.
- Cook with your kids. When teens and tweens have an active role in meal planning and preparation, they feel more empowered. Sit down with your child and plan out the week’s meals. Go shopping together, and tell them about the benefits of different foods—for example, “yellow peppers are good for your skin,” or “blueberries help your memory.” Let them choose different things to try, such as white asparagus or cherimoya. And cook together; it’s a great way to bond.
Lisa Turner is a food writer and holistic nutritionist based in Boulder, Colo.