I have the pleasure of being a parent to teenagers and I really do mean that. The only real disagreements that occurred were to do with food. Suddenly, regular mealtimes were a thing of the past as the teens would try to eat at odd times and often eat out at “friends” or more truthfully, the nearest fast food restaurant or bakers! There would also be signs of empty crisp packets, fizzy drinks or, even worse, energy drinks left in their bedrooms. My children had become teenagers!
Even though we usually consider the teenage “stage” beginning at the age of 13, arguably, it is really when the child enters puberty. Adolescence is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the “period in human growth and development that occurs after childhood and before adulthood, from ages 10 to 19“. As puberty begins, hormonal changes causes physical developments in the body which can, in turn, influence emotions. Often the adolescent will begin to question his or her parents advice and values, preferring to turn to their peers for guidance and not communicating well with family members. Suddenly, peer influence becomes important and this may have an impact on eating habits.
Teenagers often become “grazers”, eating as they get hungry rather than at set mealtimes which can make it difficult to ensure they have a healthy diet. Family mealtimes are of significant importance when trying to ensure adolescents eat sufficient vegetables and fruit. In addition to this, many young adults will skip breakfast, which may have negative consequences on weight gain, glycemic levels and missing out on various health benefits which have been attributed to eating breakfast (See here). For instance, eating breakfast cereals are considered to help fulfil the Reference Nutritional Intake (see here for a clear explanation of RNI and nutrient intake) and possibly have a further impact of eating throughout the day.
As an example of how teenagers are failing to eat to desired requirements, according to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS), which was published in 2014, ten percent of boys aged between 11 and 18 met the UK “5 a day” recommendations for fruit and vegetables, with only seven percent of girls in the same age group meeting the target amounts. Furthermore, eating oily fish was very low with an average of 21g being consumed by 16-24 years olds, in comparison to the 140g per week recommended. Macronutrient and micronutrient needs change during puberty; a few examples of this can be seen below (as taken from here) :
- Boys aged 15-18 require increased protein intake- 55.2g in comparison to 28.3g for children aged 7-10
- Children aged 7-10 need 8.7mg of Iron, whereas females from age 11 up to age 50 require 14.8mg of Iron.
- Both Males and Females need an increase in calcium during ages 11-18.
Adolescence can often also be a time for experimentation. Teenagers often start trying alcohol and the latest findings from the NDNS shows that forty percent of participants aged between 16 and 24 drank alcohol in a four day period, but of more concern, five percent of children aged 11-15 admitted to drinking alcohol in the same period (see chapter 8 of the NDNS).
For parents and carers, adolescence can be a challenging time to try to ensure that the young person is eating regularly and, most importantly, eating a wide variety of nutrients. Sitting down to meals together as a family at least a few times a week may, just a little, help to set parents minds at rest that their teenager is eating well…..occasionally!