This is Part 7 of my series on Puberty and Growth
In this series, we’ve already talked about the incredible growth that happens during puberty. Now, we need to tap into something that goes along with this crazy growth: hunger. Adolescence spans the second decade of childhood (10-18) and the changes kids go through pose unique challenges in the area of eating.
So after reviewing the research, I thought it was best to look at each point from the view of the child going through puberty. Because how children and parents handle this surge in hunger and development, can make a huge difference not just with how children grow, but in their future relationship with food.
1. I don’t always know what to eat
When I’m hungry, I grab whatever is available. When I’m busy with homework it’s usually crackers or another quick snack. When you find out what I ate, you’re never happy but I’m not sure what else to do.
During adolescence, eating habits take a turn for the worse. Kids tend to snack more, with two-thirds snacking while watching TV, and two out of their four snacks are energy dense foods. Remember, carbohydrates play a key role in growth so this is the first thing they will go for. And 20 percent of adolescents skip breakfast during the day, meaning hunger can surge even more later in the day.
What to do? Kids need to understand the filling factor of foods, Constantly snacking makes hunger go away but it comes back sooner. Choosing filling foods with protein, complex carbohydrates, and fiber, along with healthy fat may be helpful.
The key is to have balanced options easily accessible at home, and talking to your child about which food combinations fill them up is key. In one study, availability, modeling and encouragement were all linked to increased fruit and vegetable intake during adolescence.
2. I forget about nutrition when I’m hangry
I’ve heard about what foods are healthy and not since preschool. But when it comes time to eat, I want something that will satisfy me which always seems to be unhealthy.
Even children with a great deal of nutrition knowledge find it difficult to follow nutrition advice. In fact, various studies have failed to find a link between nutrition knowledge and BMI, food preferences, and nutrition behaviors at this age range. In other words, knowing about nutrition doesn’t always translate into action.
What to do? The question adolescents need to ask themselves during these times is not what should I eat? but How do I feel (or want to feel?). This helps children discover how a variety of foods can be nutritious and satisfying. At no other point has mindful and intuitive eating become more important. Encourage children to slow down, honor hunger and fullness, and make food a priority so they can avoid “hangry” episodes.
These bodily changes are affecting me
3. (girl) My body is changing and I worry that I’m gaining too much weight. I never had this extra fat in the middle before. I don’t like what’s happening to my body.
4. (boy) I want puberty to hurry on up and finish so I can be tall, muscular and strong: I don’t want to be the smallest kid in class. I want to grow and don’t know why it is taking so long. Is there anything I can do to hurry it along?
A positive body image, or what researchers call “body esteem,” is vital to health and wellness during puberty and beyond. Again and again, research points towards an advantage for children who have a positive body image: healthier diets, stable weights, better self-esteem and more robust emotional health. But feelings about one’s body differ between girls and boys. Researchers at the Catholic University of Milan surveyed adolescents and made this conclusion:
…the visibility of physical changes in male adolescents’ bodies was an aspect that made them more satisfied with their bodies and, consequently, with themselves. However, the opposite happened in female individuals. For female adolescents, in fact, pubertal changes such as menarche, weight increases, and larger hips led to constantly decreasing satisfaction with their bodies. The final outcome of this body dissatisfaction was low self-esteem.
What to do? In addition to discussing changes with kids, is helping them see that trying to change the genetic blueprint of their body, is not helpful (i.e., dieting and skipping meals to manage weight or trying to become more muscular before the body’s ready). In episode 14 of The Healthy Family Podcast, Dr. Neumark Sztainer offers four keys to helping children develop a positive body image: being a role model, family meals, a focus on health versus weight, and listening more and talking less.
5. It’s not okay that rules apply to kids only
It’s not fair that I have limits on screen time, when and what food is eaten and checking my phone, and you don’t. I want some say in these rules too because my needs have changed and I’m growing up.
During adolescence, kids are changing fast and need more autonomy. Unlike toddlers, they notice when there are separate rules for kids and adults. In one survey, children were twice as likely to report that adults should follow the same rules on technology as children. While we need different rules sometimes (like drinking because you’re over 21), it’s always better when health-related rules/guidelines/routines are followed by the entire family.
What to do? Bring children into the equation whether it’s formulating a family media plan or creating the weekly menu. Respecting autonomy while providing limits is key. Since adolescence is the gradual transition to adulthood, more responsibility should gradually be given as well.
So there you have it. Some keys to help your hungry adolescent child thrive. If you are in the thick of it, what challenges are you experiencing?
Posts Included in the Series:
Intro: 6 Things About Puberty and Growth Every Parent Should Know
1. The Stages of Puberty: What Families Can Expect
2. How to Get Your Child Through Puberty Without Hating Their Growing Body
3. How to Normalize Sexual Development with Elizabeth Trejos-Castillo [Podcast]
4. Why Puberty is the Ideal Time to Invest in Bone Health
5. 15 Simple and Delicious Calcium-Rich Recipes for the Whole Family
6. Preventing Eating and Weight-Related Problems in Your Child. Project EAT’s Principal Investigator Dianne Neumark Sztainer [Podcast]