Healthy eating for teens on the run

Having analyzed many teenage diets, I can tell you it’s enough to make a dietitian cringe. They follow a common theme of too much, too little, too fast.

“I never have time for breakfast.” “I get a candy bar and chips and soda before practice.” When I get home from practice I eat leftovers I make in the microwave or stop by Burger King,” said Jim, 16. On the other hand, Jessica, 16, eats a plain bagel for breakfast or skips it all together. At school for lunch another plain bagel and water. At dinner she may eat some white rice or plain pasta. Do these patterns sound familiar?

During the past 20 years, the average American diet has become substantially higher in fat and deficient in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, despite the fact that they are abundant year-round in either a fresh, frozen or canned form.

Most children these days consider the standard fast food meal of a cheeseburger, french fries and a soft drink to be “good food.”

This combination is in fact high in fat and therefore has kid taste appeal. About 225 calories out of the 650 in this meal are fat, which is more than 1/3 of the total calories or 25 grams.

Teens need increased calories and nutrients to promote growth as discussed last month.

They need a good and consistent supply of calcium, iron, zinc and the B vitamins. But how do you work it all in?

An active female teen requires about 2,200 calories per day while an active male teen requires about 2,800 calories per day.

These calories should come from the following sources: breads, cereal, rice and pasta; vegetables; fruit; meat; milk, yogurt and cheese; and fats, oils and sweets (used sparingly).

Teens who are involved in sports or who exercise frequently need to increase their caloric intake to maintain a healthy weight.

Dieting is not a part of being an athlete. This is of particular concern for teenage girls. While participating in high school sports can provide numerous health benefits, women on the playing fields can incur some health risks.

The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that young women in sports face a trio of possible health complications. Called the “female athlete triad,” these risks are disordered eating (explained below), amenorrhea (loss of menstruation), and decreased bone mineral density.

Too Few Nutrients and Fluids:

Take for example Lisa, a 15-year-old soccer player who would often dash to school in the morning, leaving home without eating breakfast or drinking any beverages.

At school Lisa would have nothing to eat or drink until lunch. Lisa’s lunch was a hurried 20-minute affair, consisting of a cup of yogurt, a piece of fruit and washed down by iced tea purchased from a vending machine. By the time Lisa reached soccer practice, she was already dehydrated before even engaging in vigorous athletic activity.

Lisa’s eating patterns are considered “disordered eating,” which is different than an eating disorder (the intentional manipulation of a diet for unhealthy reasons). In Lisa’s case, her lifestyle and lack of proper nutritional guidance were keeping her from eating properly.

Disordered eating can cause amenorrhea. When a female is not consuming enough fat and calories in her diet to maintain a healthy body composition, the body shuts down activities considered to be non-essential. Amenorrhea puts young women at risk of osteoporosis or weak bones.

Teenage boys also fall into this “disordered eating” especially when the need to “make weight” or bulk up for their chosen sport.

Tips for parents:

Set a good example don’t obsess on fat and prepare and serve healthful foods in a consistent manner. Avoid discussions about dieting.

Encourage drinking plenty of water especially during and after exercise and regardless of whether they feel thirsty. (In fact feeling thirsty is a sign of dehydration.)

Look and listen pay attention to weight loss. Look for an overemphasis on fat free foods and changes in eating patterns.

Make eating a positive experience. Avoid emotional discussions. Eat slowly. A meal should last at least 20 minutes.

Educate on principles of good nutrition – eat a variety of foods in moderation and choose foods that are nutrientdense and are not just giving empty calories.

By Susan Browning, Registered Dietitian and Coordinator of Outreach Programs, Susquehanna Health.