Teens and adolescents are inundated with lots of mixed messages when it comes to finding the right diet regimen. Go with a low-carb plan or high protein? Give up meat? Eat more fats? Take supplements?

“Teens are constantly bombarded by all this garbage,” said Dr. Michelle Pearlman, a nutrition specialist board certified in internal medicine, gastroenterology and obesity medicine at the University of Miami Health System. “In social media, anything goes.”

Too often, the basics of a good healthy diet get lost amid a flashy or fashionable array of choices often touted by peers or celebrity influencers, maybe even at home.

“Unfortunately, fad diets are made so enticing, especially during this sensitive time when teens are concerned about how they look,” said Lillian Craggs-Dino, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Florida in Weston. “What are they restricting? Proteins? Carbs? Fats? They need all that.”

There’s a lot of misinformation out there whether you’re 15 or 50, said the experts..

While it’s not unusual for adults to try various diets to get in shape, there’s less wiggle room for mistakes when it comes to calories and nutrients needed by young people.

And “the younger the person, the more vulnerable,” said Pearlman. Much is at stake, including nutrition for bone growth, energy, hormonal changes, organ, tissue and brain development.

Kids and teens have “different caloric needs” than their parents, said Dr. Metee Comkornruecha, director of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital.

“The body needs all the different micronutrients to function properly. Restrictions may result in diets that are not healthy for them.”

Key questions to ask your children about dieting

If your child is pursuing a certain diet, there’s an initial key question you’ll want answered.

“Parents should ask their teens why they want to follow a particular diet?” said Carla Duenas, a registered dietician at Baptist Health South Florida.

Dietitians and physicians said they are seeing more kids turning to a plant-based diet, whether it’s due to a concern about animals, the environment or health reasons.

“A lot of teens are going the vegetarian or vegan route,” said Craggs-Dino. “It can be a very viable diet but teens really need to be counseled by a dietitian who knows veganism to help them with their choices.”

Teens should be counseled by a nutritionist before adopting a plant-based diet.
Teens should be counseled by a nutritionist before adopting a plant-based diet.

There are a variety of vegetarian diets. A vegan diet is more restrictive than vegetarian because it also eliminates dairy products in addition to all animal products, said Craggs-Dino.

Getting enough protein, iron and other vitamins is critical though doable with the proper education, said the experts..

Dietitians often advise vegans, whether teens or adults, to take a Vitamin B-12 supplement, since B-12, a key nutrient that helps keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy, can only be found in animal proteins.

“There’s a right and a wrong way to follow a vegan diet,” said Duenas. “The problem is that teens may take it up themselves without proper learning.”

Problems with Keto, Paleo diets for teens

Another diet gaining more mainstream appeal is the Ketogenic or Keto diet. It’s a low-carb, high-fat diet. The idea is that it lowers blood sugar and insulin levels, and shifts the body’s metabolism away from carbs to force your body into using a different type of fuel.

“It’s an extreme restriction of micronutrients,” said Comkornruecha.

Instead of relying on sugar that comes from carbohydrates (such as grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits), the keto diet relies on ketone bodies, a type of fuel that the liver produces from stored fat, according to an article published by the Harvard Medical School.

The Keto diet was created in the 1920s as a diet to help children with epilepsy who weren’t responding to their medicine, said Craggs-Dino.

“Keto is an extremely low-carb diet, like 15 to 20 grams, when teens need 130 grams per day,” she said. “I would not recommend the Keto diet for weight loss for teenagers.”

“Carbs are usually what’s so restricted in a lot of these diets,” said. Craggs-Dino “It’s OK to restrict too many Twinkies and a lot of processed food, but teens need to eat fruits, whole grains and dairy.”

Adding so many fats is also detrimental, said Pearlman. “Saturated fat is horrendous.”

The Paleo diet is another diet in circulation. This diet is based on foods similar to what food was around during the Paleolithic era, which dates from roughly 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago.

Paleo “is more liberal than the Keto diet,” said Duenas, but “it still restricts a lot of carbs and a lot of dairy, which benefit teens.”

Supplements can be dangerous for teens

Teens may also embrace fads like fasting, juice or tea cleanses and supplements, which are especially used for bodybuilding and weight loss.

“Fasting in teens, I think, that’s tricky ground,” said Craggs-Dino.

Supplements in particular are a “billion-dollar industry,” said Pearlman.

“If people eat real food and enough protein and time it correctly, supplements are not needed,” she said. “Supplements filter through the body. They could affect the liver, kidneys, hormones. They’re not to be taken lightly.”

Plus supplements “are not tested on teens,” said Duenas.

Teens often will embrace fads like fasting, juice or tea cleanses and supplements, which are especially used for bodybuilding and weight loss. But these haven’t been tested on teens and can be harmful to them, nutritionists say.
Teens often will embrace fads like fasting, juice or tea cleanses and supplements, which are especially used for bodybuilding and weight loss. But these haven’t been tested on teens and can be harmful to them, nutritionists say.

Even vitamins should “be appropriate for age groups,” said Pearlman. “Kids are taking Flintstones vitamins and not adult vitamins. There’s a reason for that.”

Parents need to find a gentle balance between being helpful or judgmental, said Comkornruecha.

“If kids are eating a pizza or a hamburger or pasta, these things are all fine in moderation,” he said. “You want to stay away from labeling bad foods and good foods. That’s where some kids start to develop eating disorders — if they start to feel like they have to avoid everything ‘bad.’ “

When teens move toward too restrictive diets it can have serious consequences, said Comkornruecha.

Watch for eating disorders

The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. Some red flags to watch for, according to the experts:

Frequently skipping meals or refusing to eat

Drastic weight loss and gain

Frequent complaining about being overweight

Using laxatives, diuretics or enemies after eating; having bloating or diarrhea

Not eating in front of the family

Forcing themselves to vomit after binging

Expressing depression, disgust or guilt about their eating habits.

“A child needs support and needs to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing,” said Craggs-Dino.

Parents should trust their intuition, said Comkornruecha. “A parent’s intuition is very strong.”

Healthy eating habits

To develop healthy eating habits, encourage both a balanced diet and physical activity. Here are some tips from doctors and dietitians for helping your teen, and your family, eat healthier.

Eat three meals a day with snacks like fruit, cheese sticks, hummus. You don’t want to be too restrictive and forbid an occasional ice cream cone or cookie, just don’t make it a regular routine. Avoid processed foods.

Eat fruits and vegetables. Dietitians suggest teens eat 2 cups of fruit and 2 ½ cups of vegetables every day for a 2,000 calorie diet. Aim for a rainbow of foods to get the most nutrients.

Consume Calcium. Children and teenagers between the ages of 9 and 18 should aim for 1,300 milligrams per day, which is about four servings of high-calcium food or drinks. Good sources include yogurt or milk and low-fat cheese.

Eat protein to build muscles and organs. Your teen should eat 5½ ounces of protein-rich foods every day. Good sources include lean meat, poultry, or fish. One-ounce equivalents of other sources include ½ cup of beans or tofu, one egg, a tablespoon of peanut butter, and ½ ounce of nuts or seeds, according to the John Muir Health system of doctors and hospitals..

Make sure you have whole grains for energy. Teens should get 6 ounces of grains every day. At least half of all grains should be whole.

Eat iron-rich foods. Good sources of iron include spinach, lean beef, iron-fortified cereals and breads, dried beans and peas.

Eat healthy fats. Choose unsaturated fats include oils such as olive, canola, safflower and sunflower; fatty, coldwater fish like salmon, trout, tuna, and whitefish; nuts and seeds; avocados.

Watch your calories. The American Heart Association recommends 1,800 calories for a 14–18-year-old girl and 2,200 for a 14–18-year-old boy.

Hydrate. Kids should be drinking a lot of water, especially during the summer and during exercising. Avoid high-sugar drinks.

Try to have the kids involved in planning and cooking meals. Have family meals as often as possible, said Comkornruecha.

“There’s no perfect diet plan,” said Pearlman. “Nutrition can be complicated but In simple terms, if people ate real food in its most natural form it would not be as big an issue.”

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