Stress Management: Supporting Teens Towards Good Nutrition and Eating WellParents
This article contains contributions from Brianna Higgins, MS, RD, a clinical pediatric dietitian at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Nutrition and Health
Nutrition plays a profound role in our ability to manage stress today, and to maintain our health and well-being tomorrow. When we guide our teens to understand the importance of healthy eating, we prepare them for more fulfilling and longer lives.
Nutrition is tightly tied to the cycle of stress. On the one hand, when we eat in a healthy way, we have stronger bodies, clearer minds, and more stable moods empowering us to better manage stress. On the other hand. when we are stressed, our hormones drive us towards unhealthy eating habits. These unhealthy nutritional choices may offer temporary comfort, but undermine our ability to manage challenges in the longer term. Our comprehensive approach to managing stress promotes good nutrition, because when we better manage stress overall, we tend to choose healthier foods. And, in turn, with good nutrition, we can better manage ongoing stress.
This piece underscores the importance of nutrition, and offers some targeted strategies to help your adolescent eat well. The science on dietary choices and nutrition is evolving. We encourage you to explore these two sites, which are backed by the most recent research: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/ and https://www.choosemyplate.gov.
Healthy Bodies and Exercise
The expression “You are what you eat” says so much. Food offers both the fuel and the building blocks for a strong body. We can survive (but won’t thrive) on low-quality foods, but they are associated with a range of poor health outcomes including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Our bodies function more efficiently when we consume nutrient t dense foods. Nutrition also influences our ability to exercise efficiently. And exercise is key to our ability to manage stress and remain healthy.
Stable Mood and Clear Thought
To maintain the even temperament needed to manage life’s curveballs, the brain needs a steady supply of energy. Glucose is normally the source of energy for the brain. This means that we should eat foods that continuously deliver glucose to the brain. Glucose is found in simple and complex sugars (known as carbohydrates). Simple sugars taste sweet and are found in candy, soft drinks, junk foods, and refined grains (like white bread and white rice). They are quickly absorbed and deliver a burst of energy followed by a crash. Complex carbohydrates don’t taste as sweet and deliver a slower, more steady supply of glucose to the brain. Complex carbohydrates are found in whole grains, high-fiber fruits like apples, berries, and bananas, and vegetables.
How Stress Undermines Good Nutrition
To understand how stress undermines good nutrition it is helpful to think about how the body reacts in an active emergency.
Remember that we were designed for survival. In the not too distant past, that meant escaping predators like tigers. In a crisis where survival is at stake the body goes through some amazing changes to prepare to escape. Adrenaline surges and activates the fight-or-flight response. The adrenaline shifts the blood from our gut to our muscles so we can sprint away.
Digestion becomes a low priority function in a crisis because the bodies resources (blood and energy) are directed elsewhere. This is exactly as it should be if there’s a real tiger and escape is all that matters. The problem is that most modern-day stresses aren’t real tigers. If our stress levels remain high, even if they are based on our thoughts and feelings rather than a real predator, our digestive system will not function well.
Recovering and Preparing for the Long Haul
Another hormone comes into play to help us recover and prepare for the long-haul. Cortisol gets turned on in “recovery-mode” and increases our appetite and food cravings to replenish the energy we may have used during “survival-mode.” If stress remains at a fairly high level, the cortisol continues to circulate in preparation for the next crisis. Cortisol increases anxiety and alertness and keeps our appetite revved up so we are prepared for the next threat.
Stress seems to not only affect our appetite, but it also affects specific food preferences. Emotional distress increases our cravings for food high in fat, sugar, or both. Fatty and sugary foods may have short-term benefits like activating our feel-good emotions, but problems arise when stress is not short-term. Long-term stress can lead the body to store fat around the midsection, and that has been linked to heart disease and other poor health outcomes. For many people, ongoing stress is a major barrier to weight-loss.
The body is a brilliant machine that is hard to outsmart. That’s why it’s so important to have an understanding of a broad range of strategies to eat healthy while under stress.
Eating should be more than just something we do. It should give us pleasure and offer moments to connect with others. In this increasingly rushed world it too often becomes something we just fit in. But when we rush while eating or grab on the go, we are likely to eat larger portions and less nutritious food. Or, in this world full of constant stimuli – texting, television, the internet, gaming – it too often becomes something we do as we multitask. But when we don’t focus on what we are eating, we more often give in to less-healthy cravings and pay less attention to signals that our body is satisfied, making us overeat.
The following ideas are wise every day, but particularly important to intentionally follow during times of stress. Talk with your teens about how to be more intentional about their eating habits and choices, including:
- Eat a variety of foods that contain complex carbohydrates, lean protein, low fat and high fiber. This will help you avoid energy peaks and valleys and will keep your brain operating at high performance levels.
- Eat breakfast. A healthy breakfast gives you needed energy to begin to forge through the day. It gets your metabolism moving and your mind working.
- Eat slowly and intentionally. Focus on eating — look at your food, savor the taste, experience the textures. Dish out a portion size that will satisfy you. People usually eat what is on their plate, so plan ahead. If you aren’t sure what an appropriate portion size is, check out MyPlate guidelines. Plan on taking at least 20 minutes for meals. This gives your body time to signal that you are satisfied and will prevent you from eating when you aren’t hungry.
- On stressful days, eat smaller amounts, but more frequently. This will meet your nutritional needs even if your digestive system is “off.”
- Try for a balanced diet over the course of the day. Make sure to get at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables. This provides your body with the necessary vitamins and minerals to help the brain function at its greatest potential.
Help Teens Learn the Benefits of Healthy Eating
If only we could just tell teens about the importance of eating well. Or even control what they ate. Gosh, when they were three we could just say “You’ve already had your treat today.”
During adolescence, we want our tweens and teens to learn to make wise decisions because they know what’s good and right for them. It is not about us controlling their choices, it is about them choosing to make the right choices because they actually make sense. When we become overly controlling during adolescence (about anything!) it can backfire. We don’t want to overplay our hands. Instead, we want to: 1) Offer them information they care about; 2) Give them the opportunity and resources to learn on their own; 3) Help them gain insight from their own lives; and 4) Model for them.
Don’t Overplay Your Hand
- Don’t make food a battleground. It takes away the pleasure of eating.
- When you talk about good nutrition and a healthy body, make it clear that this isn’t about how they look. Too many destructive messages exist about appearance. This is about how they feel and think.
- Don’t link food to rewards or punishments. Link it to pleasure and being together.
Offer Information They Care About
Young people want to be healthy. They also want to have fun (as we all do!) and to eat food that tastes good (as we all do!). Learning about healthy nutrition is better framed when we talk about what to do, rather than focusing only on things not to do. Talk to them about the importance of building strong, healthy bodies during the adolescent years when they are growing rapidly. Discuss the importance of eating for pleasure and taking their time while eating. Give them accurate information about portion size. Ensure they start their day with a well balanced breakfast and eat healthy snacks to keep them going. Suggest they carry around a water bottle to stay well hydrated or that they infuse their water with fresh juice from fruits or vegetables. Offer them information and resources to ensure they get enough from all the food groups including fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains.
Opportunities to Learn on Their Own
Most kids are eating machines. They’ll eat anything in sight. That’s really good news for parents, because we influence what is in sight. When our kitchens are full of fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy snacks, we can be pretty sure that our teens will develop a taste for those foods. On the other hand, if they are full of greasy processed – albeit yummy – foods they’ll likely reach for them first. We don’t suggest banning those foods entirely because they’ll only become more attractive – forbidden foods are craved. Rather, limit them.
Nature is on your side. Teens’ appetites are larger than any one snack. When the bag of orange crunchy food is gone, your ravenous teen will go for the fruit. And hopefully, learn how much better they feel when they do. Know that not all snacks are created equal. Buy snacks whose ingredients you can pronounce!
How Food Makes You Feel
Help your teens pay attention to the connection between what they eat and how they think and feel. That way, they’ll soon choose the foods that best match their mood. Most people know what it means to be “hangry” – ornery when hungry. People are less patient and quicker to “go-off” during a crash in their blood sugar. People will also notice when certain foods and overeating, in general, leaves them exhausted or foggy.
Encourage your teens to notice how much better they concentrate in school with a healthy breakfast of proteins (including eggs) and complex carbohydrates. Point out how you notice the way food affects your teen’s mood. Even better, ask them what they notice about how food affects their mind and body.
Why do you eat?
A difference between people who eat healthily and those who don’t is often found in their answer to the question, “Why do you eat?” Healthy eaters tend to eat mostly when they are hungry. Unhealthy eaters eat when they are hungry, but also to feed their emotions. They eat when sad, excited, or bored. Sometimes they eat just to give themselves something to do. This is the major reason we want to raise our children to be intentional about eating. Set time aside. Enjoy it. Eat to fill nutritional needs. Eat because they are hungry.
Your kids are watching you. They are likely to adopt healthy eating habits if you do. It’s important for you to set the tone about what food means in your family life.
Family meals are highly protective for young people. It’s not only about the food being served. It’s about the connection that occurs when families spend time together. Meals can be a great way to start the day together and check in at the end of the day. An added benefit is that family time becomes associated with nutritious, leisurely meals. When people take time to eat and associate it with good memories, they may be more likely to develop lifelong healthy eating habits, and to raise their own families the same way.
But we don’t live in a 1950’s sitcom. We all do the best we can amidst chaotic schedules and competing forces in our lives. So, model as best you can. No matter how much is spinning, always make time to be together. Even one meal every week or two can have a long-lasting impact on health, togetherness, and the ability to manage challenges. One meal – phones off. Just together. An instant vacation. A time to savor good fortunes and have nutritious food to eat with loved ones.