Role of parents in raising nutrition-conscious teens

Factors such as education and peer influence come into play when considering healthy eating habits in teens, but a significant dimension that cannot be ignored is the stance of parents on this important subject. Read on to understand why more teens are relying on processed foods in the current times and how you, as a parent, can play a considerable role in nurturing their food preferences.

Ultra-processed foods as a “gateway”

With a fast-paced life that demands a bunch of tasks to be ticked off the checklist within strict deadlines, rarely does an adolescent find time to patiently spend hours in the kitchen to cook a wholesome meal. Given their busy schedules, it is quite understandable that the eating habits of the average teenager aren’t among the healthiest. The stress of academics, extra-curricular activities, and peer pressure relegate teens’ eating habits—especially healthy ones—into the not-so-important zone of their schedules.

Teens' eating habits are now based on convenience, which is why the concept of ultra-processed foods (UPF) has gained in popularity. This refers to the trajectory of food processing from the farm to the fork. The downside is not only that UPFs have, on average, a poorer nutritional quality, but they have generally undergone many stages in processing. Hence, many of them may contain cosmetic food additives and/or other ingredients used to enhance the flavour and palatability of the final product.

The following are a few reasons why teens consider ultra-processed foods as a gateway:

  • Convenience: The ease of preparation and handling of UPFs make them quite popular, but also lead to poor eating habits among teenagers, who prioritise convenience over nutrition.
  • To get over negative emotions: Emotional eating is referred to as eating in response to negative affect. Studies suggest that stress, worry, and tension/anxiety can lead to emotional eating among girls, while a confused mood could lead to boys relying on food as a gateway.
  • Palatability: Ultra-processed and fast foods are prepared to appease the masses and tantalise their taste buds. With frequent consumption, they can turn into potentially addictive substances that are most likely to create dependence and shape the food habits of teenagers.

There is no denying the fact that most kitchens stock UPFs, or at least some processed foods, these days given their time-saving attribute. However, it is most advisable to have processed foods that have proper and controlled portions of salt, sugar, and fat. Do make it a habit of reading the food labels on packets when picking up processed foods from your supermarket shelf. Importantly, teenage unhealthy eating habits can be mitigated even when deciding on a processed food meal if the salt, sugar, and fat contents are within recommended limits.

How to encourage healthy eating habits in teens

Parents act as role models to frame good eating habits for their teens, and there are several ways by which they can nurture good eating habits for teens in general:

Set an example: Children observe what their parents eat, and their food choices and habits can be directly emulated by the teens. Teens watch your steps even when you don’t notice, and they can pick up emotional eating from you. Emotional eating could be more learnt than inherited. Hence, by setting the right example, your kids are more likely to gain.

Do not offer food as a reward: To formulate healthy eating habits in your teen, you’d be better off if you quit telling them that you’d offer a particular food as a prize if they finish a given chore. When adolescents are fed with the idea that food isn’t just limited to providing nutrition or as the very means to satiate hunger, the urge to consume food under emotional stress can increase and permanently influence the eating habits of teenagers.

Educate yourself: Education forms the foundation for healthy eating. The amount of novel research associated with food is vast, and so are the quacks and myths related to it. Besides, social media may also feed your teenager unreasonable tales of crash diets. The only way to overcome these challenges and ensure your child receives the proper knowledge and makes a wise choice of food selection is to first update yourself.

Offer exciting, healthy food: Boredom is one of the reasons for unhealthy teenage eating habits. Being bored can make your teen lose meaning in present circumstances and life. The state of boredom drives eating as a distraction from such feelings. During such times, it would be worthwhile to come up with constructive activities that keep your teen busy and engaged. Besides, more exciting, healthy food can be offered—though not on the plate —as it serves as an alternative to maladaptive consumption following boredom.

Honour their preferences: As a parent, you must understand your teen’s choices and decisions. Early teens may still rely on you when choosing their food, but this may not hold true in the group on the verge of entering adulthood. With these years moulding their personalities and likes and dislikes, they may have presumptions about certain foods and not want to consume them. Instead of strictly asking to switch to better choices, make it a gradual journey of progression to a healthier lifestyle. Your encouragement and support will help nurture more responsible teens regarding their eating choices compared to putting them down.

Conclusion

Processed foods are delicious and appetising and help save time, but they may come at a pricey cost—inadequate nutrition. With the multitude of options available, thanks to the burgeoning food industry, it can be tricky as a parent to monitor the food habits of teenagers. The bane is also that teens' eating habits related to excessive consumption of processed foods are linked to an increased risk of several chronic conditions, especially obesity. However, the good news is that parents continue to play an important role in their children's eating behaviour well into their end-teen years, and it’s never too late to start raising healthier teens who are well-equipped to make responsible food choices later on in life. As a responsible parent, you can also advise your teen to choose processed foods (sparingly though) that highlight the beneficial ingredients, including nutrients, in them.

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