Published: January 15, 2020
Holiday treats and New Year’s resolutions can serve as opportunities for adolescents to reflect on their eating, exercise, and nutrition habits. Healthy habits in the teen years can support teens’ development now and their health in the future. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services/Office of Adolescent Health has some suggestions below for adults to keep in mind as they support teens in making healthy choices.
Teens’ bodies undergo a lot of growth and change during adolescence. Teens’ appetites often increase during this time because they need more calories to grow. Promoting good eating habits goes beyond helping teens manage their calories. They need a good balance of protein, carbohydrates (especially complex ones), dietary fat, vitamins, and minerals. Most U.S. teens get twice the amount of protein they need, but are lacking in vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamin D.
Keep healthy, easy foods on hand, and limit unhealthy foods. Teens’ busy schedules and increasing appetites can mean quick decisions based on convenience. When making snap decisions, the environment matters. Having foods that require little preparation (e.g., nuts, fruit) while limiting processed foods (e.g. chips, cookies) makes the choice easier for teens.
Talk to adolescents about food, but use a health lens. Research shows that when parents talk about food from a weight-control lens, teens are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors (e.g., excessive dieting or binge eating) than teens whose parents focus on health. Parents also can talk to their teens to help them build skills, such as reading nutrition labels.
Model healthy eating to empower teens. Part of supporting adolescents is ensuring that they grow in their ability to make decisions for themselves. Telling a teen to eat certain foods is unlikely to be as effective as it might have been when they were younger. Adults can empower teens to make healthy food choices by eating well themselves, which reinforces any conversations they have with teens about food choice.
Physical activity works with good nutrition to help teens develop strong bones, muscles, and joints. Generally, physical activity does not need to be difficult or strenuous for teens to benefit, and in fact exercising too much can hurt teens. Unfortunately, nearly half of U.S. youth between ages 12 and 21 are not active regularly and 14 percent have had no recent physical activity.
Encourage adolescents to find activities that they find fun. As with healthy eating, teens are more likely to choose to be physically active if it is easy and fun for them. Not every teen will want to play on their high school sports team or go for a run. The good news is many activities can get teens moving – they just need to find the right activity for them.
Be mindful of over-exertion to help adolescents avoid injury. If teens are excited about an activity, or if they feel pressure to participate, it can lead them to overdo things. Remind teens to listen to their body so they know to stop when things hurt. You also may want to monitor if their weight drops below normal levels or if physical activity interferes with other responsibilities.
Teens’ growth spurts also mean they need a lot of sleep. Experts recommend that teens get between eight to 10 hours of sleep per night. Getting this amount of sleep can be challenging because teens often experience a shift in their sleep cycles that may make them stay awake late even when they need to get up early for school and other activities. Additionally, busy schedules and screen time also can disrupt teens’ sleep.
Help teens manage their schedules to sleep well. Parents can support teens by helping them manage their time to ensure that sleep remains a priority. Prioritizing sleep can include allowing them to cut back on activities if they are too busy, helping them establish and stick to a bedtime that works for them, and/or limiting evening caffeine and computer or cell phone use. It also could mean considering (or asking schools to consider) later school start times.
For more information about teen health from WHA, visit mywha.org/teen.