Adolescence is the gateway to adulthood, not only heralding critical physical changes but also setting the scene for emotional, intellectual and social maturity. During this time – which typically spans around ages 12 to 19 years – the accelerated growth rate echoes that of early childhood and culminates in teenagers reaching most of their adult height and weight. Sexual development is a key aspect of adolescence and is reflected in changes in body composition. For girls, this generally means an increase from around 19% to 22% body fat as their pre-pubescent bodies take on rounder, more feminine curves. Boys, although their body fat usually remains unchanged at about 15%, can gain more than twice the muscle mass of girls.
Given all this growth and development, it is hardly surprising that optimal nutrition is absolutely vital during adolescence … and yet, ironically, this can also be a time when teens are particularly vulnerable to deficiencies. Growing independence from parents is often accompanied by the desire to make personal food choices. As part of this muscle-flexing, food can become the target of peer pressure, media messages and body image issues, and even a weapon of defiance.
Teaching teens the value of delicious, whole- some food and its importance to glowing health and physical stamina is an excellent starting point for parents – particularly if parents also lead by example and can be seen to ‘walk the talk’. Strong bodies, clear minds and boundless energy are our birthright – whatever our age.
CARBOHYDRATES, PROTEIN AND FAT
These are collectively called ‘macro-nutrients’, as the body needs them in large (macro) quantities.
- Carbs. Growth requires energy, which explains why teenagers often have voracious appetites. Although carbohydrates are the body’s main fuel, some forms provide longer-lasting energy than others. So-called complex carbs found in starchy foods are bound together with fibre that helps to slow down their conversion to blood sugar. This encourages more balanced energy and mood levels, and also helps to combat sugary food cravings. Wholewheat bread and pasta, brown rice, rolled oats, peas, beans and lentils are all rich sources of energy-sustaining complex carbs.
- Protein is essential for building, repairing and maintaining the body from the inside out, so this is another vital nutrient for the growing and developing adolescent body. Fish, poultry, lean red meat, eggs, nuts and seeds are excellent sources of protein. For a meat-free variation, combining grains (e.g. wheat, rye, rice) with legumes (beans, peas, lentils) provides a protein-content equal to meat.
- Fat has a host of uses in the body, ranging from energy to brain activity, so it’s easy to see how it earns its place as an essential teen nutrient. Saturated fats are generally best eaten in small quantities, as they are very energy-dense. Untrimmed meat, butter and cheese are all rich animal sources.
Polyunsaturated fats include the essential omegas 3 and 6, which have an impressive array of activities spanning hormones, skin and brain. Oily fish (remember SMASH: salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring), nuts, seeds, avocados and olives are all delicious ways to top up polyunsaturated fats. A deficiency in essential omegas may result in dry skin, hair and eyes, sore joints, compromised immunity and depression.1