I was not surprised to read an article in The Guardian newspaper entitled ‘Teenage girls eat less healthy food than any other group, survey reveals ‘. As a nutritional therapist, the founder of Lunchbox Doctor and also the mother of a daughter who becomes a teenager in just 3 months time I am very familiar with the changing needs of this age group. I see not only her needs change but also the needs and taste preferences of some of her friends too.
The article outlines the overconsumption of sweets, fizzy drinks and processed foods in this population group and the under consumption of dark green leafy vegetables, other vegetables and fruit (just 7% of 11-18 year old girls meet the 5-a-day target set out by the government). Generally teenage girls diets were too low in iron and magnesium according to the survey. Other studies find teenage girls lacking in iodine, zinc and Vitamin D too.
Yet we live in an age in which teenage girls are subjected to a barrage of images through their social media feeds and online media that depict the “ideal female body”. I will not be the only one that views this juxtaposition suspiciously.
It’s my assertion that in a world focused on body image and not health there will always be a mismatch of messaging and outcomes. I urge us all to solely speak of the health benefits of food. When I say ‘speak’ I mean through actions and words. We really are an important influence on our children’s habits and preferences and the recommendations I am about to make will be healthful to us too.
When it comes to health benefits these are the areas we should be focussing on with our own daughters.
- Iron for Energy – in simple terms iron helps blood cells carry the oxygen that is needed for energy. Getting the right amount of iron can improve performance in sports, activities and in school. Iron is an important nutrient for teen girls, especially for those who have started menstruating. Good sources of iron include red meat, eggs, poultry, fish and legumes (or beans). It is important to know that your body absorbs iron from animal sources more easily than it absorbs iron from plant sources. Although foods high in vitamin C help your body absorb plant-based iron. I suggest encouraging your teenage daughter to eat iron-rich foods along with foods that are high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, melon, strawberries, tomatoes, and dark green vegetables to increase the amount of iron absorbed.
- Magnesium for Consistent Energy – Magnesium is such an important mineral and has so many roles but specifically where teenage girls are concerned I would say its roles in blood sugar balance, hormone control and relaxation are of prime importance. Teenage girls may be deficient if they do not consume sufficient amounts of vegetables, nuts and even legumes. So the obvious way to rectify this is to exchange some of the processed food choices for some more real food choices and consider eating some of those vegetables raw too. Include cacao powder, nuts, dark green vegetables and oats in your teenage daughters diet if possible.
- Iodine for Higher IQ and Hormone Health – 70% of teenage girls are deficient in iodine according to this survey. Iodine can affect our IQ too according to multiple studies. Sufficient iodine is also linked to efficient metabolism. Sources of iodine include ocean-living fish, seaweed, eggs, dairy products and watercress.
- Zinc for Immunity and Growth – zinc is an essential component for more than 300 enzymes involved in the synthesis and metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and other micro-nutrients. As it is also essential for cell division it is needed for normal growth and development during adolescence. Furthermore it helps to protect against illness as a vital contributor to your body’s immune system. Zinc can be found in meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, nuts and seeds as well as dark green vegetables. It is best consumed as or alongside protein food sources to improve absorption.
- Vitamin D for Bone Strength and Mental Health – Low levels of Vitamin D are prevalent across the whole population these days and teenage girls are not immune to this deficiency. That’s partly due to our modern lifestyles but also due to dietary changes. Low levels are linked with increased risk of bone fractures but also depression. It’s worth getting your Vitamin D levels tested which your doctor will do if requested. Also consider increasing the amounts of eggs (especially the yolk), oily fish in the diet and consider supplementing with a good quality cod liver oil. This is the one we use.
You can see that there are many ways in which we can help our teenage daughters to focus on the HEALTH BENEFITS of a better, real food diet and steer well clear of the focus on body image which appears to be a constant in their young lives. That way I believe they can focus on becoming healthier, happier and smarter adults who happen to have greater body confidence as a direct result of feeling good from the inside out and not focussing on calories and low fat foods.