Are Diet Harmful For Children & Teenagers?

I want to start the blog of by repeating what I say in most of my Blogs.  Diets do NOT work.  This goes for all age groups.  Diets can create an unhealthy relationship with food and for children and teenagers whose brains are still developing they can be especially damaging.

The difficult issue is that childhood and adolescent obesity is a major issue.  A pandemic (sorry I know that word has been overused recently!).  In 2018 1 in 5 teenagers in the EU were overweight or obese (OECD and European Union, 2020).  Covid-19 has probably not helped matters with sports clubs, dance studios etc being closed.  Not being allowed to gather with people.  Basically, having to stay at home.  Stress and fear would also have played a role in emotional eating. 

So, the doctor has said your child or teen needs to lose weight or they will be at risk for developing several life changing illnesses?  Type 2 Diabetes usually was only seen older adults.  Worryingly children as young as 10 are being diagnosed with it (Sheryl Huggins, 2021)!  High blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease all diseases associated with adults are now being seen in children. So, do you start researching diets?

It’s not a simple answer, but what you DON’T do is put them on a restrictive diet, say certain foods are ‘not allowed’ or comment on your child/teenagers eating habits.  Comments like “Are you sure you want to be eating that”, or “You need to cut back on the sweets” might seem harmless but there’s no telling the damage they can be doing.

What Do They Need?

Children and teenagers require increased calories to support all the growth and development that occurs during this time so going on very low-calorie diets can stunt this.  For girls a low-calorie diet can also cause menstrual irregularities (amenorrhea) which can affect long term fertility outcomes.  This can also lead to thinning of the bones. 

As for the macro nutrients Carbohydrates, Protein and Fat, most ‘fad diets’ tend to cut out or significantly avoid at least one.  As I’ve said before they are all essential for good health and they all have specific biological functions. 

For carbs about 50-60% of a child/teen overall calorie intake should come from carbohydrates. 

Protein is so important for growth and repair of cells, antibodies (strong immune system), hormones and enzymes among other functions.  Around 10-30% of their overall calorie intake should come from Protein. 

As for Fats 25-35% of their overall calorie intake should come from Fats. 

Then there’s the important minerals.  Calcium for strong bones and teeth and muscle function.  Potassium for fluid balance, muscle contraction and nerve signals.  Zinc is important for growth and development during teenage years as well as immune function and wound healing.  It also helps with the absorption of Vitamin C.  Iron is especially important for females who are menstruating.

Don’t forget fibre.  Establishing a healthy Gut from a young age will set you up for life.  It’s a lot more difficult to ‘rewire’ your Gut microbiome as an adult.  Having plenty of fibre rich foods and minimal highly processed foods will give the good Gut bacteria plenty of nourishment so the Gut can stay healthy.

You also need to factor in things like growth spurts and hormonal changes which occur during puberty.  Dieting at a young age can be harmful as it can disrupt the natural changes that occur during puberty.  It’s also important to remember that weight gain is part of healthy growth and development. 

What Influences Children And Teens To Diet?

There are MANY things out there that would cause a child to feel that they must restrict their eating to lose weight.  Social Media is a minefield of bad nutrition advice, pro anorexia posts and more.  Influencers are so powerful.  You can’t really take social media away from your child, but you can educate them on healthy eating habits and explain that not everything they see on Social Media is true. 

Another thing that will influence them is if there is a lot of diet culture at home.  If parents or guardians are always complaining about their weight or going on fad diets this can really influence a child’s perception of what is healthy.  Having a good relationship with food yourself will rub off on your child.  Involving them in things like grocery shopping, meal prep and cooking will not only teach them life skills for later. 

Like I mentioned above.  Peer pressure and bullying can also lead to low self esteem and then this can go two ways.  The child/teenagers can decide to emotionally binge eating, or they can decide to try crazy restrictive diets.  Either way it can lead to one of several eating disorders.

What You Can Do To Keep Your Child Or Teenager Healthy?

This is simple.  On top of discouraging ‘diet talk’ and encouraging the enjoyment of good food you need to.

  • Ensure they get plenty of fruit and vegetables in.  I know this might be a real challenge for a lot of parents.  But there are ways to sneak them in.  Making a homemade tomato sauce that can be used in pasta and on homemade pizza can let you sneak some other veg like peppers, tomatoes (obviously), carrots, there are loads of simple recipes out there.  You can make it in bulk and store it in the fridge or freezer.  Stir fries, curries, smoothies, use fruit for deserts.  Just get inventive. 
  • Cut back on processed foods as much as possible.  You don’t have to ‘ban’ them completely.  Just try not to have them in the house all the time.  Try to stick to whole minimally processed fruits, veg (frozen is good to), fresh meat, fresh fish, pasta, rice and other grains, nuts, & seeds, milk, eggs, cheese, butter. 
  • Limit foods that are high in saturated fats.  Try healthier alternatives.  For example, instead of deep-fried chips you could oven cook them, or air fry them.  Instead of a greasy takeaway burger get a nice lean beef burger from your local butcher, which a nice wholegrain seeded bun and some lettuce, tomato.
  • Ensure they are getting enough calcium whether it’s from dairy or non-dairy sources like Fortified soy, almond and rice milk.  Fortified orange juice. Tofu made with calcium sulphate.  Canned fish with bones.  Fortified cereals and English muffins.  Greens and beans. 
  • If they decide they want to go Vegan make sure they understand they can’t just cut out foods and not replace them.  Nutrients like Iron and B vitamins and vitamin D are difficult to get enough of on a Vegan diet, but not impossible.
  • Cut back on sugary drinks.  The best thing to do is not have them in the house at all.  It’s difficult with teenagers because when they’re at school at lunch time you don’t have much control over what they use their lunch money on, but if they’re getting plenty of nutritious foods from home it should be ok.
  • Being involved in some kind of physical activity is great. This could be difficult as exercise is not everyone’s cup of tea.  Me for example, I hated PE or anything that required me to run or catch/throw a ball.  Then I discovered dance.  Dance is 100% a sport and because of it I am so much fitter.  It might take a few failed attempts, but they will find a physical activity they enjoy.  Dance, Gymnastics, Gaelic, Basketball, Hurley, Camogie, Martial arts, Swimming, Running.

References

OECD and European Union (2020) Health at a Glance: Europe 2020: State of Health in the EU Cycle. OECD (Health at a Glance: Europe). doi:10.1787/82129230-en.

Sheryl Huggins, S. (2021) Type 2 Diabetes Is Increasing in Children and Teens, Especially in BIPOC Youth, EverydayHealth.com. Available at: https://www.everydayhealth.com/type-2-diabetes/increasing-in-children-and-teens-especially-in-youth-of-color/ (Accessed: 4 November 2021).

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