Kristen Maloney, MS, RD, LDN
As parents you want what is best for your kids, including their health and success. When you see your teen adopt unhealthy food behaviors, it’s natural to want to step in and not know where to start.
Why is my teen acting this way?
In my experience as a registered dietitian, teens tend to be naturally curious about how food affects their bodies. However, teens are going through a lot socially and may not always feel comfortable talking to adults about these topics, so they tend to go to the internet and friends instead (Holmberg, 2017). When I was a teen, before social media took off, I was enjoying a container of low-fat yogurt with lunch one day. My friend took one look at my yogurt and said, “Oh, yogurt isn’t good for weight.” As a teen, what I heard was “yogurt is bad and there’s something wrong with your body.” I’m not sure how long it took me to eat yogurt again, but I know now that yogurt has many health benefits, including calcium and probiotics. So, yes, misinformation from friends can be very influential!
Today, social media is so commonly used by teens and young adults that healthcare professionals have taken to the platform to provide mass education. Unfortunately, there are plenty of unqualified influencers giving health advice too which isn’t the greatest resource for teens who are more prone to experimenting and making impulsive decisions (Cerri, 2012). For instance, have you heard of the latest frozen honey eating trend on Tik Tok? This is harmless for most people, but it can cause stomach upset or spike blood sugars if you eat too much too quickly.
Additionally, friends and social media influence teen perceptions of what counts as socially acceptable bodies. The bodies teens see online aren’t what they look like in real life because of filters and photo editing. If you suffered from body image issues when you were a teen, can you imagine how much more intense it could be for your teen today?
How to talk your teen about food, nutrition, and body image.
If your teen is struggling with negative body image, it is not your fault. Teens are complex, and they learn from examples outside of the walls of the house. You should take heart that teens are watching and learning from you, too! Here are some tips for talking with your teen about these topics:
- Actions Speak Louder. Role model a healthy lifestyle and a positive body image.
- Avoid Words like “Cut Out” or “Eliminate”. It’s trendy for teens to decide to become vegetarian or vegan. If your teen wants to cut out food groups, take them to see a registered dietitian who can make sure they’re getting adequate nutrition.
- Focus on Food Quality, not Calories. Discourage teens from following crash diets. If they need to lose weight, they should do so under a doctor’s supervision (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2015).
- Avoid words like “burning calories” or “losing weight”. Focus on non-weight benefits of physical activity, such has their enjoyment of the sport or the chance to have fun with friends.
- All movement counts! If your teen is not active, encourage any form of fun movement, such as walking, biking, Pilates, yoga, swimming, or shooting hoops. You can suggest getting their friends or other family members on board.
- Focus on Personal Growth. Encourage teen athletes to continually get better each day, working towards their own personal best instead of comparing themselves to other team members.
What else can I do?
In addition to fostering a body-positive environment at home, encourage your teen to utilize health resources at school and in the community:
- Look for health education in schools. Some schools teach teens about nutrition in their Physical Education/ Health, Sports Science, or Family and Consumer Science courses.
- Check with your insurance for access to healthcare services, such psychological and nutritional counseling. Many teens work with psychologists for body image, self-confidence, identity, and career decisions. Dietitians can help teens learn how to balance healthy and fun foods, how to cook simple dishes, read nutrition facts labels, and how to fuel for sports.
- Look for community resources. Your community may offer free resources, like Cooking Matters or Cooperative Extension services that provide nutrition, cooking, or gardening classes.
- Sign up for health-focused volunteer opportunities. They say the best way to learn is to teach! For example, becoming a junior coach for Girls on the Run would give them a leadership opportunity while practicing body positivity, physical activity, and emotional health.
- Don’t delay specialized help. It’s easy for healthy behaviors to turn into exercise addiction or an obsession with healthy eating. Take your teen to a doctor if you suspect disordered eating. Getting them the right help quickly can prevent problems further down the road.
You can do it!
Helping your teen with their body image, food, and nutrition is not an easy task. It may be difficult to connect with your teen, and the process will take time. However, the journey to a happy, healthy, and self-confident teenager is worth it!
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2015, November 21). Losing Weight Safely, Sensibly, Successfully. Retrieved from Healthy Children Web site: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/obesity/Pages/Losing-Weight-Safely-Sensibly-Successfully.aspx
Cerri, E. M. (2012). What is social media feeding you? A study of diet and weight loss information available on YouTube. Appetite, 58(3), 1171. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2012.02.024
Holmberg, C. (2017). Chapter 601: Adolescents’ Food Communication in Social Media- A Theoretical Inquiry of the Why and How. In C. Holmberg, & M. Khosrow-Pour (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology. IGI Global. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313903649_Adolescents’_Food_Communication_in_Social_Media_-_A_Theoretical_Inquiry_of_the_Why_and_How