The day you lose control over your child’s diet is often the day that facebook, twitter and mobile phones become more important than playgrounds, bedtime stories and teddy bears, closely followed by the opposite sex, parties and
everything but a health conscious lifestyle. As soon as the body starts pumping testosterone and oestrogen, innocent children can turn into self-obsessed and irresponsible beings called teenagers!
During these years of excess, the body has to deal with a whole new host of challenges. Sex hormone production goes through the roof, alcohol and nicotine often make their first appearance and growth spurts and social pressures dramatically increase the need for nutrients. Having said that, it’s a rare and precious sight to find a teenager hunched over a bowl of watercress sprinkled with pumpkin seeds while furiously exchanging text messages. And because we (mostly) think back fondly on our wild, fearless and slightly cringe-worthy high school years, we don’t want to spoil the fun by forcing broccoli down their throats and locking them in their messy bedrooms until the age of thirty.
Between the ages of 16 and 21 the body is at its physical peak and incredibly resistant to damage. Hangovers never used to be as bad and no matter what kind of junk food you ate and how little sleep you got, your energy levels seemed to be impossible to exhaust. Nevertheless, even though we thought we were invincible, nutrient deficiencies can have a dramatic knock on effect.
While the liver of an inbetweener might be much more forgiving than yours or mine, skin problems are one of the most talked about issues on forums and social networking sites. Teenage acne is a hard burden to bear and it can leave scars that are more than skin deep, resulting in crippling confidence issues. This skin condition is often caused by high levels of dihydrotestosterone (DHT), a metabolite of vastly increased testosterone production. Sexual activity, actual or considered, can cause a slight but significant rise in hormone levels, cue spots on your forehead in the morning. Such pursuits may also be responsible for a low zinc status in males. Coincidentally, zinc is one of the most important nutrients for healthy skin and depletion may contribute to the odd spot or two.
Asking an adolescent to consider abstinence is like hoping your cat will fetch the newspaper one day (not to mention the awkward conversation). It’s much easier just to keep stores of zinc-rich foods in the cupboard for your son to raid. Fill your fridge with seafood, roast beef, turkey and yoghurt to snack on and mix some pumpkin seeds into breakfast cereal. Hummus, made from sesame seeds, is a fantastic mineral-rich dip to accompany any teenager’s favourite nibble. In addition, a zinc supplement might be a good idea to support skin health; also, nettle (in capsule form for comfort) can help calm down testosterone levels. You might just be able to convince your almost grown up child in the name of vanity!
Girls face rather different challenges at that age. Peer pressure, magazines and popular media can influence susceptible teens to look a certain way and the rising figures of eating disorders in children as young as 12 are, frankly, shocking. The arrival of the first period is a sure sign that puberty has arrived and nutrient requirements change, just like your little girl’s sense of fashion as she now prefers hot pant and make up to princess dresses. Menstrual blood loss can often be heavy and irregular during the first years and many young women show signs of iron deficiency. Fantastic sources of this essential mineral include good quality meat, beetroot, lentils and beans. Include those liberally in every meal you share at home and seize the opportunity to incorporate some green leafy vegetables as well. Now is the time to instill healthy eating habits and lead by example. Make a point of regular family meals and get them to help you in the kitchen, perhaps in exchange for an hour longer out on the town. They might not appreciate it now, in fact they (al)most certainly won’t, but subconsciously a certain behavioural pattern will form. Once the hormonal turmoil has passed and the twenties are in sight, a healthier lifestyle will resume (ok, maybe not including university).
So should your teenage son or daughter gorge on chips and cheap lemonade while out of your sight, put your mind at rest by providing home cooked, nutritious foods whenever they find their way back to your dining table. Every age presents its own challenges when it comes to meeting nutritional needs and watching your precious child treating their inner organs like an out-of-season handbag is not easy. But luckily the body is an amazing machine that will forgive and forget most teenage sins. Mum and Dad will try to, too.