Making Healthier Choices for Better Teen Nutrition

By on September 17, 2015

Teens are busier than ever as they study for exams, work or volunteer and participate in clubs, teams and other hobbies. It’s no surprise that nutrition tends to fall by the wayside during this time, as teens may skip meals and choose convenience or fast food as part of socializing with friends. 

Teens may also feel pressure to conform to media and peer ideas of what their bodies “should” look like – with girls feeling pressure to be thinner and boys feeling pressure to be more muscular. This focus on image rather than health can lead to dieting and other problematic eating habits.

Parents can help by offering a variety of healthy options at home, including quick options for breakfast, lunch and snacks that teens can grab on the go. Teens can help with groceries and cooking to make sure healthy foods they enjoy will be on the menu. Both teens and parents should also be aware of common nutrient deficiencies in teens’ diets and choose foods strategically to avoid these pitfalls.  Here are some practical tips on how to maximize nutrition for teens.

1) Focus on Nutrition, Not Weight
Trying to lose weight during a time of growth is not recommended, as it could mean missing out on important nutrients. Instead, encourage teens to think about making healthier choices. 

Ways to support healthy choices: 

 •    Keep empty calories such as soft drinks and juice out of the house and offer water with cucumber and lemon  slices to  satisfy thirst. 

 •    Be a positive role model and encourage teens to lead  a life of balance. For example, if they are going out for pizza with friends, choosing thin wholegrain crust and topping it with vegetables can help maximize fibre  and nutrients. 

 •    Teens can balance out a less healthy meal at dinner by choosing a lower fat meal for lunch, such as a bean or quinoa and vegetable salad with fresh fruit.  Skipping  meals to save calories should be avoided, as this can slow down the metabolism and may lead to hunger  and overeating in the long run. 

2) Maximize Nutrients with Veggies & Fruit
Teens’ diets tend to be low in fresh vegetables and fruit.  Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables each day helps prevent diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Vegetables in particular are high in fibre and nutrients and low in calories, which can help promote a healthy body weight. Choose vegetables and fruit in a variety of colours to get a variety of cancer-fighting phytochemicals and vitamins. 

Ways to get more vegetables and fruit:

 •    Aim to fill half your plate with vegetables and fruit at  each meal.

 •    For a healthy snack, cut up fresh vegetables such as  zucchini, carrots, celery, bell peppers, radishes and  jicama and serve with hummus or Greek yogurt dip.

 •    Freeze leafy greens for quick additions to pasta sauce, soup, stir fry, or even smoothies.

 •    Carry dried fruit and raw, unsalted nuts in your bag or keep in your locker so you’re never caught without a  snack.

3.    Choose Calcium 
Research shows that many Canadian teens aren’t getting enough calcium. Meeting daily calcium needs is vital for teens to achieve their growth potential, for bone health and to prevent osteoporosis later in life.  Calcium intake has also been shown to help reduce weight gain over time.

Ways to get more calcium:

•    Choose skim or low fat milk or a fortified milk alternative as the base for a fruit smoothie or have a  cup with meals. One cup will provide about 30% of  teens’ daily calcium needs. Make sure the beverage is  also fortified with vitamin D, which is needed to  absorb calcium.
•    Have low fat yogurt with berries and high fibre, low  sugar cereal for a balanced snack. 
•    Tofu can be a good source of calcium when it is made  with calcium salts. Check the label to be sure. Soft or  silken tofu can be added to a smoothie for extra  protein and firm tofu makes a great topping for salads, sandwiches or brown rice bowls.
•    One cup of leafy greens such as kale or bok choy  provides up to 10% of daily calcium needs. Lightly  sauté or steam for a delicious side dish.
•    Eat less salt and cut out the sugary cola. Both have been shown to reduce calcium absorption.

4.    Pump Up the Iron
Iron is another nutrient that many teens aren’t getting enough of.  This mineral is needed for oxygen transport and cell growth.  Energy and immunity can be negatively affected by low iron stores. 

The type of iron in foods that come from animals is called heme iron, and it is more easily absorbed than the type of iron in foods that come from plants, called non-heme iron. 

Ways to get more iron:

•    Fish, shellfish, poultry and meat are excellent sources of iron. Even adding a small amount of these foods to  the diet can increase the absorption of non-heme iron  from other foods.
•    Add lentils and beans to soups and salads or roast in the oven for a crunchy snack.
•    Make spinach salad, add to a quiche or scrambled eggs, or use as a topping for homemade pizza or pasta dishes.
•    Pair foods containing non-heme iron with a source of vitamin C to improve iron absorption. Examples include citrus fruit, strawberries or bell peppers
•    Some breakfast cereals and bread are fortified with iron. Check the Nutrition Facts panel to be sure, and try to choose products that contain ingredients you recognize and are low in sugar and high in fibre.

Christy Brissette is a registered dietitian and media spokesperson specializing in nutrition to prevent and manage chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Christy develops, facilitates and researches innovative programs such as cooking classes and online nutrition education. For more information visit: www.ChristyBrissette.com 

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