hands preparing parsley over bowls with cauliflower, lemons and tomato

Eating well and building a nutrient-dense diet supports wellness at any age; however, it occurred to me this week that I rarely talk about nutrition concerns at specific life stages. And so, a mini-series is born: I want to share some nutrition basics for the decades, starting with the teen years.

Being a teenager is filled with enough drama. Food shouldn’t make it worse.

The teen years are often fueled by junk food – but getting a handle on (a sane approach) to healthy eating will keep you feeling amazing for whatever life throws at you. And boy, does life throw you some curveballs from 13-19. Some of you may be athletes, trying to stay fueled so you can handle long training hours while not falling asleep at school. Hormones are messing with your body and changing its shape and perhaps throwing a bunch of red spots on your face. You may also become more interested in nutrition, either for your appearance, performance or ethics, and are totally confused by what you’re seeing on the internet. So let’s cover the basics…and if they spark something, go find a registered dietitian to help you learn more.

First off, Build a Healthy Relationship with Food

Don’t label foods as good or bad.

It’s easy to see things as black and white in your teen years…but food shouldn’t be one of them. Food is just food. It isn’t evil (except for energy drinks, ditch those ASAP) and eating certain foods shouldn’t make you feel virtuous either.

It can be all too easy to get caught up in the minutiae (and the volumes of nutrition crap on the internet) of healthy eating and ban certain foods from your life because you think they are bad. Instead, try and eat more fruits and veg at every meal. Don’t sweat the candy and chips when you eat them because your body, if you get the good stuff in, is remarkably well equipped to clean up the garbage in a way someone a decade older can only dream of.

NEVER go on a diet.

I said ‘never’. Like, never ever.

Why? The teenage metabolism is a gift – although you might not think so as you watch your body change – that you don’t want to mess with. When you tune into what your body really wants to eat and enjoy it without judgement, it will rarely steer you wrong. Like I said above, focus your meals on real food like fruits, veg, grains and proteins so you’re fuelled and don’t sweat the junk food treats.

Self-consciousness about your changing body can lead you to want to restrict your eating, which is the worst possible decision. Trust me, I started dieting AT SEVENTEEN and things have never been the same. Think you have to look like those crazy buff guys and rail-thin girls you see in the media? This is the digital age, my friend…the people in those photos don’t actually look like that and have been practically redrawn in the photo edits.

Learn to cook three simple meals.

The only way to tame the siren call of junk food is to learn to fend for yourself. If you love to cook, take advantage of this time to learn all that you can. Pour over cookbooks, master the soufflé. Create a blog and watch your Instagram followers shoot through the roof (food photos are total click bait). Not only will this expose you to the amazing art of cooking, it’s going to win you brownie points with your likely over-worked parents.

However, even if you don’t (and maybe especially if you don’t) love cooking, learn to cook three simple meals. Something like pasta with sauce and broccoli or a tofu scramble. Why? Because your parents are tired and deserve a break sometime. And, when you get to college, living on ramen and beer will make you feel gross.

Cooking is an essential life skill and so much of what ails us as adults (I know…that seems like light years from now) comes back to not cooking for yourself. Now’s the time to learn.

Get to Know Your Core Nutrient: Protein

Why choose protein? For a few reasons. The first, is that you are still growing. Protein is critical for building new cells (including bones). The second, is that for those of you in sports, while you definitely don’t need to spend money on protein powders, eating a concentrated source of protein at every meal will help you with muscle recovery while supporting growth.

Lack of energy? Cranky? Protein in a meal stabilizes blood sugars, which is critical for stabilizing energy levels and avoiding sugar-induced slumps. Stable blood sugars are also really important to fight the inflammation that drives acne.

So how much do you need? Take your weight in pounds and divide it by two (see, you need math!!) to get the average number of grams per day. If you are 130 pounds, you need roughly 65g of protein a day. But don’t worry about counting protein grams religiously. Just get some kind of protein source on your plate at every meal. Meat and fish is easy, it’s about the size of a deck of cards. Of course, since I am a big proponent of plant-based diets, check out these plant proteins.

Eat These Super (Simple) Food Picks

Pumpkin Seeds

Skin troubles? Meet your new fave snack. Pumpkin seeds are high in two nutrients that support healthy skin: zinc and omega 3 fatty acids. People with acne are commonly low in zinc and zinc supports skin health in multiple ways: it inhibits the bacteria responsible for acne, P.acnes; it also fights inflammation and addresses hormonal imbalances.

Omega 3 fatty acids are also important for nourishing the skin and help to fight inflammation too. So try snacking on ¼ cup of raw pumpkin seeds or add them to your oatmeal or yogurt everyday.

Lentils

Iron needs increase in the teen years at the same time where you may be less interested in eating meat (or eating too much junk!). So lentils are an inexpensive, easy to prepare option that is protein, fibre and iron rich.

Have prepared lentil soup as an easy and cheap lunch or add canned lentils to just about anything. Lentils make salad a real meal. You can also bake them into a pasta dish…or brownies!

Spinach

Greens are always top of my list for a nutrient-dense diet; spinach gets top marks for teens because it is higher in calcium and iron with fewer mineral binders than other greens. It’s also pretty cheap and available in pre-washed for those of you who want your food ready in 30 seconds.

Toss with lemon and olive oil to add a simple salad to whatever meal is on the table. Blend a big handful in a smoothie with banana and apple or pour hot soup over spinach to wilt it instantly and add some green power to your go-to prepared soup.

Don’t go it alone: seek help for these common nutrition-related concerns

If you are starting to become preoccupied with food or how you look, don’t brush it off and don’t keep it a secret. Learn more here and go talk to your doc.

If you are a female athlete and you lose your period, talk to your doc ASAP.

If you are interested in going vegetarian, do it the right way (no, mac and cheese and candy all day isn’t healthy) and see a dietitian.

If you are worried about weight gain because your weight is getting in the way of enjoying your life, talk to your doc about healthy eating and fitness programs geared for teens. Like I said above, don’t go on a diet.

Photo Credit: Joey Armstrong