Trending on Twitter today was the story of a certain donut company offering free donuts with proof of a COVID-19 vaccination. While many applaud the marketing move as a way to encourage vaccination, others question the judgement of an offer that could result in excess of 50,000 additional calories by the end of 2021 (when the offer expires).
Americans love their junk food, and teenage boys perhaps most of all. And while a little treat now and then isn’t a bad thing, eating too many salty, sugary, and fatty foods can have serious consequences on teens’ health and wellbeing. Specifically, poor diet can cause symptoms of depression and other mental health issues, such as low mood, fatigue, irritability, and poor school performance.
Here are four healthy eating hacks to help your teen get eating, and feeling, better:
Replace Soda and Sugary Drinks
Perhaps the easiest healthy eating hack is to replace soda and sugary drinks. Sugary drinks may provide a short-term energy and dopamine boost, but supply no nutritional benefits.
The average teen boy consumes at least one sugary drink per day (and some many more than that). 17% of an adolescent’s daily calories come from added sugars, nearly half of those from beverages.
Swapping out a soda, sports drink or energy drink for water cuts 200 to 450 calories, as well as caffeine and other nasty chemicals.
Moving to water-only may be a tough sell. We came to a compromise with my sons by substituting their previous soda consumption with other flavored drinks. Naturally flavored sparkling water, herbal energy drinks with no added sugar, and coconut water worked for us.
One of our favorites is freshly-squeezed lemon or lime juice in ice water with a dash of agave syrup for sweetness. Kombutcha, fruit-infused water, Crystal Lite, and herbal teas are other good options.
Limit “Junk” Food
Science continues to validate the folk wisdom, “you are what you eat.” What we put in our bodies affects the ways we think, feel, and act.
Studies show that adolescents whose diet relies heavily on high-calorie, low-nutrition foods have a higher risk of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and hypertension.
What’s more, teens who consistently eat a variety of nutrition-rich foods are less prone to illness and depression than their peers. One study found that teens whose primary diet consists of less-healthy “junk” or “fast” food have an 80 percent higher risk of depression.
It may be difficult to control–or even know–what your teen is eating when away from home. This makes it even more important to stock the kitchen with a variety of healthy and appealing choices for when he is.
It seems obvious, but if what’s in the kitchen is cookies and potato chips, that’s the first thing they’ll be reaching for. Adolescent boys snack often and will eat what is easiest and on hand, so make sure what’s on hand is healthy!
Make Small (Sneaky) Changes
Sometimes, hitting teens over the head with a complete healthy eating makeover is met with resistance. To avoid a mutiny, consider smaller, even sneaky, changes.
One of my sisters pre-blends cooked vegetables and adds them (unnoticed) into soups and casseroles. My hack to get teens to eat more vegetables is cheese. Whatever you find that works for you, use it. There are lots of resources for incorporating healthier foods into your diet and other healthy eating hacks to be found online.
Experts say small but consistent changes are best. Replacing french fries with sweet potato or green bean “fries;” adding a green smoothie to your morning routine; buying whole-grain bread instead of white. These are small changes, but put together go a long way towards a more healthy diet.
Know How Much is Too Much
Parents and those who spend any time with teenage boys know that their appetites are legendary. Between growth spurts and high activity levels, their caloric needs can be enormous. But how much is too much?
“There’s so little research focused just on boys,” said obesity and eating disorders expert Alison Field in an article in the New York Times. “We do know that… when males go through their growth spurt, which is longer than females’, their appetite is tremendous.”
One interesting study followed the lunchtime habits of adolescent boys and girls ages 8 to 18. They found that boys ate considerably more than girls did (no surprise there). But how much they ate was surprising. Teenage boys participating in the study consumed an average of 2000 calories — not in a day, but at a single sitting. (The official calorie recommendation for 14 to 19-year old boys is 2400-2800 per day, total.)
While experts don’t generally recommend calorie restriction, they do suggest replacing “empty” or low-nutritional calories with healthier, most satisfying ones. For example, adding healthy fats (avocados, hummus, olive oil) can help boys feel fuller, longer.
Keep an eye peeled for sudden weight gain, and weight that isn’t in proportion to height and activity level. In cases where a change in diet is in order, the focus should be on health, not weight. And if you suspect your teen has an eating disorder, don’t hesitate to seek the help of a qualified professional.
Remember, boys, quite literally, are what they eat–both physically and mentally. Creating a healthy food environment at home, guiding him towards nutritious choices, and using a few hacks when needed will help your teen gain and maintain healthy eating habits for a lifetime of better health.
By Natalie Walker Whitlock, for The Forge School
This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. If your child is having a mental health emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text 741741 from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.