Teen Nutrition: Overfed and Undernourished?

Teens need exceptional nutrition – their bodies are still growing and maturing and so are their brains. Poor nutrition can lead to mood swings, especially for teens when hormones are changing (and raging). Too many chemicals, high sugar products plus not enough nutrients in their bodies are a bad combination. Without good nutrition, teens will have acne, weight gain, mood swings, anger or low energy. This will hinder their ability to concentrate on their studies. And girls will have difficult periods and headaches. Many will become pre-diabetic or diabetic.

Another staggering fact: from ADHD and depression, to anxiety and schizophrenia, mental illness affects as many as one in every five youth, making it the single most disabling group of disorders worldwide.

It is a difficult world, more complex than previous generations. Teens are “plugged in” all the time, there is more information to absorb, many lack coping skills and there are higher expectations. Nonetheless, there’s one area that is hardly ever talked about called the Missing Link in Mental Illness – especially pertaining to depression and anxiety. That missing link is poor diet– certainly not lack of calories, however.  What I am referring to is lack of nourishment and nutrients to the brain and body.

Sugar, unhealthy fats and chemicals in our food supply are the enemies of our times. We need to get teens back to healthy foods.

Teen Nutrition Basics

Blood Sugar Regulation

Eating foods such as orange juice, muffins, pastas, processed foods such as salad dressings, white flour products and even whole wheat bread is not always a great idea. These foods turn to sugar and the body reacts by releasing too much insulin to bring down dangerous levels of blood sugar. Excessive sugary foods prevent teens (and adults) from keeping ideal weight and maintaining a healthy blood sugar level – which is necessary for mood and good health. Poor blood sugar regulation is causing too many young people to be pre-diabetic or diabetic. High blood sugar forces insulin to be released to bring it down to safe levels. But sometimes the levels get too low and then another hormone, glucagon kicks in to bring blood sugar up to appropriate levels. If the person also had a few cups of coffee or some cookies or a milk shake, the blood sugar surges higher and drops shortly afterwards, resulting in a series of ‘highs and lows’.  Low blood sugar can make teens feel tired and moody, which leads them to reach for more poor carbohydrates (sugar) to spike their energy level back up again and the vicious cycle goes on.

Blood sugar regulation is essential.

Not all carbohydrates are created equal. Teens need carbohydrates to help fuel their bodies; it’s the choices that matter. Teens need to stabilize blood sugar with complex carbohydrates found in whole grains such as spelt, brown rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes, and whole oats – not sugar filled granola bars, cereals and store bought muffins filled with sugar and chemicals. Stay away from high fructose corn syrup, processed foods, packaged snacks, and processed soy products as best as you can.

Fruit and vegetables should be eaten in abundance. They contain fiber that help move bowels and reduce toxicity caused by retained waste.

Eliminate Unhealthy Fats and Chemicals

Healthy fats will nourish the brain, heart and nerves (which are covered by a myelin sheath made of fat) and will increase the body’s metabolism to burn fat. Avoid bad fats such as, margarine, fake butter products, hydrogenated fats, ‘light’ oils and processed fats. The best are cold pressed or cold processed fats, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, butter, raw nuts such as walnuts, pecans, almonds, hazelnuts, ground flax seeds, pumpkin seeds – no heat involved that can damage fats. Some processed fats/oils sitting on grocery shelves have been through major processing – bleaching and deodorizing (Facts about Fat, Finnegan and Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill, Erasmus). The results are trans fatty acids filled with toxins. Watch for them in packaged foods.  If you can’t pronounce what’s on the package and you don’t know what it is, neither does your body. The body doesn’t know what to do with chemicals. The liver will be working hard to filter out the chemicals. Give your liver a break!

Eat Proteins at Every Meal

The growing teenage brain needs protein. Protein gives the body the building blocks it needs to repair and renew, and it also serves as a source of energy. Try fish, seafood, chicken, beef, pork and dairy products. Many nuts are high in protein, but beware: nuts also contain high levels of fat and calories. The protein in nuts is less adequate than the protein in meats, fish or eggs. For example, after eating the small amount of protein provided in a peanut butter sandwich at lunch, an hour or so later you may find yourself losing brain power. (Be sure to eat only all-natural nut butters – beware of processed peanut butter that is full of sugar.)

Amounts of Food

Calorie restriction is dangerous for anyone – particularly for young girls. Too many young teens have been triggered into anorexia. If they are eating life producing foods, then they can eat until full and won’t be required to eat more. Most people eat too much food due to the fact that the fast foods do not provide enough nutrients, and the body feels starved even though calories are high – so they eat more of the fast foods or processed foods and gain weight. Overfed and undernourished.

Nutrients to Thrive – the missing link in mental (and physical) health

Cells are powered by nutrients. Vitamin D alone powers 200 reactions in the body and without it teens will be prone to depression. Without enough B vitamins, and B12 (found in proteins) teens will feel lethargic, low in energy and be candidates for anemia, muscle wasting and depression or anxiety. Without enough Vitamin C (from most fruits and vegetables), scurvy-like symptoms can occur, bleeding gums, aching joints (people may think they’re ‘growing’ pains). Low zinc can trigger anorexia. Zinc has been nicknamed the “new anti-depressant”– it boosts mood and appetite.

Extra Tips:

If your teen is too tired or refuses to eat breakfast (which is truly the most important meal of the day) make them a fruit smoothie with protein powder and yogurt. It’s a fast, healthy way to start the day. We can’t control what our teens eat when they are away from home, so be sure to educate them about the ill-effects of junk food – potato chips, soda pop, fast foods, etc. Make a list of healthy “power foods for better moods” so teens are familiar with healthy alternatives. Want them to eat healthier? Buy healthier! Stock your cupboards and refrigerator with fresh, whole foods and nutritious snacks. Let your teens help shop for healthy foods that they like and let them prepare their own meals/snacks. Keep junk food out of the house or to a bare minimum. Sneak blueberries or zucchini into brownies if they’re not good fruit and vegetable eaters. As parents, set a good example for your children by eating healthy and instilling good eating habits when they are young.