I am now officially the proud mother of a teenager and get to experience firsthand the highs and lows in trying to raise a healthy teen. To celebrate, I thought I’d bring back and update a post I wrote a few years ago on the topic.
I am going to share 7 tips that evidence and research suggests will help us, along with a bit of a reality check. Just like with trying to get toddlers to eat their vegetables – the more invested we as parents in getting our adolescents to make the healthy choice, in many (but not all) cases, the more defiant and rebellious they become.
Teens aren’t well known for their great health habits. In fact, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans includes a great graphic showing diet quality across the lifespan. As you can see, our nutrition habits are at their worst during the adolescent years.
On the whole, teens don’t eat enough fruits, vegetables, or whole grains and eat too much sodium, sugar, and saturated fats. In addition, less than one-third of high school students get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day. An American Heart Association (AHA) study found that no teens had ideal cardiovascular health (as defined in the table copied from that article and shown below. The AHA dubs these habits "Life's Simple 7".
Note: the healthy diet score components include >4.5 cups of fruits and vegetables per day, 2 or more servings of fish per week, sodium <1500mg per day, less than 450 kcals or 36oz of sugary drinks per week, and 3 or more servings of whole grains per day. This is generally the hardest metric to meet.
While teens do not always want to hear what their parents or other adults tell them, I’ve seen many adolescents who have made significant and lasting changes in their lives to improve their physical and mental health with the support of their families. We can’t force change but we can help make it easier for teens to make healthier choices and help them come around to wanting to change. Here are a few ideas to boost teens’ health now and help them to gain the knowledge, skills, and attitudes they’ll need to keep it up once they head out on their own.
1. Eat family dinners. The benefits of eating family dinners are well known – and they are most pronounced for teens. Teens who eat more family dinners have fewer emotional and behavioral problems, are less likely to smoke and drink, and have improved life satisfaction as well as improved nutrition behaviors including consumption of more fruits and vegetables and breakfast.
2. Lead the Way. As teens gain increasing independence, it may seem like they aren’t influenced by their parents’ actions but teens who live in homes where parents eat healthfully and are active are more likely to eat healthy and be active themselves.
3. Encourage but don’t force. Adolescence is characterized by a growing resistance to authority; in most cases, pushing a teen too hard to take on healthy habits is more likely to lead to defiance and, consequently, even worse health behaviors. Instead, ask your teen if it’s ok if you share with them some information about healthy eating and activity. If they say ok, share the information and then ask: “what do you think?” If they say “no”, respect that and try again another time. Set the stage for your teen to come up with possible solutions or changes they want to make. That way, they’ll be more likely to actually make the changes and stick with them.
4. Create a healthy environment. You can’t control what your teen does when they’re out with their friends, at school, or in someone else’s home. But – you can control what your teen is exposed to in your own home. Make sure that you’ve created a healthy environment including ready access to a variety of healthy foods (and not easy access to junk foods) and a home environment that supports physical activity. At the same time, try to avoid overly restricting preferred foods as that can set up sneaking or a binge when the food is available. One way to balance this is having scheduled or preplanned dessert nights or eating out but avoiding having too many left-overs laying around the house.
5. Encourage participation in sports at school, in the gym, or with a recreational league. Sometimes teens just need a little extra support and encouragement to start being active. Explore what type of sport or activity your teen is most likely to enjoy and help to make it easy for them to get started. It doesn’t have to be a school team; most communities offer recreational activities from a wide variety of sports and disciplines. It doesn’t even have to be a sport – going for a walk or taking your teen to the gym or introducing them to a fitness class could be the start of a new favorite activity.
6. Identify “healthy” friends and help to nurture those relationships. Teens are heavily influenced by the behaviors of their friends. While you can’t pick your child’s friends, you can help to nurture those friendships that you support by going out of your way to help a child spend more time with the good influences in their life.
7. Talk it out. Talk with your teen to understand current knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs around healthy habits like eating fruits and vegetables, engaging in physical activity, and avoiding high-risk behaviors such as smoking and alcohol use. Try to assess how willing your child is to change and then, if they’re ready, help them get started.
Not every one of these steps will work every time, and sometimes you won’t see the positive impact of your patience and persistence for many years from now. However, consistently following the 7 steps above is likely to end up with a teen who becomes a healthier adult and help you have a stronger relationship along the way. Sometimes I find myself taking deep breaths and reminding myself to let another failed attempt at helping my teen come along in trying a new food or making a better choice roll off my back because I know that in the end these strategies work. I’ll keep you posted how it goes…