On Teens, Nutrition, and Exercise: How to Encourage Healthy Habits – Tufts Now

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Tips to Promote Better Nutrition in Teens

In light of these many factors, what can parents do to supporting teens in nourishing their bodies and finding forms of exercise that make sense for them? Tufts experts offered guidance ranging from being aware of specific nutrients, to including teens in food-related decision-making in the family.

Margie Skeer, interim chair of the public health and community medicine department at Tufts University School of Medicine, advised having regular family meals. Besides being linked to higher fruit and vegetable consumption and lower rates of disordered eating among adolescents, family meals have a protective effect against other high-risk behaviors, such as substance abuse. 

It’s also essential to recognize the many forces in play beyond individual choice, and to approach nutrition and exercise as not solely the teen’s problem, but a function of the overall health of the teen’s family and the broader environmental context in which the family is situated, Hennessy said.

It’s essential to recognize the many forces in play beyond individual choice, and to approach nutrition and exercise as not the teen’s problem, but a function of the overall health of the teen’s family and environment, Hennessy said.

“How can we help teens develop a healthy relationship with food and movement, and create preferences that will carry them forward?” she asked. “How do we help create that foundation to return to throughout life for those who don’t have it, and how do we maintain it for those who do?”

Start with yourself. “How do I get my teen to go on a diet / exercise?” is a common online search phrase around teens and nutrition. But Hennessy suggested first stepping back and asking, “How am I role modeling healthy behaviors for my child?” and to shift the thinking from focusing on one child to thinking about the whole family and how the whole family can support and adopt healthy eating and movement behaviors. 

Provide structure without being intrusive. Structure refers to the way parents organize their child’s environment to facilitate their child’s competence.  What does that look like in practice?  Setting rules and limits, providing limited or guiding choices, setting routines, role modeling, involving teens in food preparation and meal selection, and making healthy food available and accessible. 

Know your teen’s nutritional needs. Consult a pediatrician or dietitian, Economos said, as well as resources such as the USDA’s MyPlate Nutrition Information for Teens. Pay special attention to whether your teen is getting enough dairy or plant-based dairy alternatives (for calcium and vitamin D), and iron sources such as red meat, beans, leafy greens, and fortified cereals.

Watch for changes and patterns. Rather than focusing on your teen’s size or weight, watch for new behaviors such as skipping meals, starting to eat much more or less, as well as higher stress levels around food, Hennessy said. Observe how often these behaviors repeat and provide support for your teen, and if there is ever a concern about certain behaviors, consult your healthcare provider.

Connect with your teen. Kalami has often asked about teenage clients’ passions and interests, which can provide the will and the ways to improve health. Skeer emphasized not just spending mealtimes with teens (ideally at least half of all meals), but making sure it’s quality time—meaning a relaxed, supportive environment with open communication and no distractions (such as phones). “Parents eating meals with teens conveys that spending time together is important to them,” Skeer said.

Empower your teen. Instead of prescribing healthy habits, learn your teen’s goals around eating–for example, being a vegetarian–and help them accomplish them in a healthy way, Hennessy said. Economos highlighted the importance of including kids in meal planning and preparation from a young age, teaching them culinary skills and healthy approaches to eating.

Look to local resources. Organizations like Girls on the Run can bring teenage girls together with supportive adults to walk, jog, and run in their neighborhoods, while local dance classes could introduce elements of culture and fun, Economos said. Teens can also get together to walk or train for a 5K, or take free online classes on yoga or strength training. “Goal setting as a group, and a structure where people care if you’re coming, can be really helpful,” Economos said.

Find one small change that works. Whether it’s swapping in nuts for potato chips, setting phone alarms to drink water, dancing to Zumba videos, or going to the park with a friend or family member, it’s the small, realistic changes that make a difference, Kalami said–and you can start with just one.

Support balance and variety. Encourage not just physical health, but overall “food-related quality of life,” said Kalami–especially among teens anxious about eating the wrong thing. “One of the main things I advocate for is minimizing unnecessary restriction, and loosening it up so we can get some flexibility, freedom, and variety back in our lives,” Kalami said.

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