June 3, 2015

Those of us with teenagers in our lives find ourselves regularly despairing about their behaviour, all the while being reassured by friends that they’ll grow out of it. While in the midst of their foibles, though, it’s hard to see the successful end to a day, let alone a major life-stage. What if we could make it easier?

As with so many health, wellness, and behavioural issues, the role of food and nutrition can’t be overstated. We all know the idea that “red cordial makes kids go crazy” or that “caffeine keeps me awake”, so why should other food substances have a less dramatic effect?

Teenagers, as we’re all too aware, choose not to have the healthiest eating habits. Snacks include sugary soft drinks, pizza, chips, all variety of lollies and chocolate: not exactly a recipe for good health. Combine this with erratic hormones and constant social pressure, and it has to have an effect.

A recent small study gives hope for parents everywhere. Teenagers were given a high protein snack in the early afternoon. While the study did not report on the carbohydrate intake of participants, the results were that teenagers ate less fat and more protein throughout the day. This is hardly surprising due to the satiating effect of protein.

What was surprising was that the high protein snack led to improved mood and better cognitive performance. In short, high protein snacks might make teenagers nicer to their parents and do more homework. Sounds like a win for everyone.

Now that we know the strategy, how do we apply it in practice to our difficult teens?

It’s certainly easier to influence teens’ food choices in the home than when they’re out with friends. If increased protein intake leads to better mood and cognitive function, why not try increasing protein at the times where you might have some control?

Instead of cereal and milk for breakfast, serve up bacon and eggs; a smoothie made with protein powder, yoghurt and fruit; fruit and plain Greek yoghurt; left-overs from last night’s dinner; or even frittata ‘muffins’ that they can eat on the run.

For take-to-school lunches: chicken, avocado and salad wraps; a can of tuna or salmon with vegie sticks to dip; a generous ham, cheese and salad roll; or lettuce roll-ups with smoked salmon and avocado.

Family dinners around the table can help with communication, mood and connectedness between adults and teens, so fill them up with plenty of protein (meat, fish, poultry, beans, lentils) and vegetables in the form of stir-fry, lasagne, slow cooked meals, roasts, curries, etc.

If you have any possibility of assisting with their snacking habits, try nuts, cheese, yoghurt, boiled egg, vegies and dip, or avocado on crackers.

This list of ideas forms just the tip of the iceberg. Every parent has little tricks to help their kids (and themselves) to eat better. We’d love to see your ideas.