How do I talk to my teen about nutrition and eating better without hurting their self-esteem?
I am asked that question by so many parents. Realistically we live in the West Side bubble and there is a ton of pressure on teenagers to look a certain way. It’s easy to get sidetracked and see nutrition as an aesthetics thing, rather than a health and wellness thing that’s playing a large part in how we feel emotionally. I wanted to write this blog from the perspective of a nutritionist so I reached out to Kathy Xydis CHHC, CPT. I’ve worked with Kathy many times and highly recommend her. kxnutritionfitness.com.
Below are Kathy’s suggestions in response to the opening question:
No matter if we feel a child is overweight or underweight, the main focus should always be if they are getting the appropriate nutrients. Dieting shouldn’t be considered a normal behavior, especially when it comes to adolescents. At this stage in life, especially when girls begin menstruating, some begin to develop dissatisfaction with their bodies. This could lead to many harmful eating behaviors and the last thing we want to do is add to that. The goal should be to focus on creating long term healthy lifestyle changes. Environmental factors can cause many of these issues and thankfully can be improved. For obese adolescents, environmental factors could include insufficient physical activity, excessive intake of sugars, unhealthy fats, and overall caloric intake, and insufficient and inappropriate hydration. Having a child who is overweight can be of great concern for a parent especially since this could lead to other conditions such as hypertension, dyslipidemia, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes but the main thing we want to remember is to approach the subject in a way that won’t create body image problems or low self-esteem.
The flip side to a child being overweight or obese is for a child to be underweight due to inadequate nutrient and energy intake either by choice or by being misinformed on what the appropriate intake should be for them specifically. They could also be participating in unhealthy eating habits such as dieting or developing other eating disorders. This can also happen with adolescent athletes where they are not getting enough nutrients to support their intense physical activity. When a child wants to be their best at their beloved sport, they are more apt to make changes if they know how it will help their performance or their future. Also, tying nutrition back to other things that are important to them could help too. If an adolescent is concerned about their complexion, having a discussion about how the proper nutrition and hydration can help could be a good start.
One of the best things we could do is to set a good example for them with our own habits and to supply the proper education. As a family, many improvements can be made. Some examples could be learning about healthy eating habits together, grocery shopping and making meals together, finding a new recipe to try, sitting at the dinner table for dinner multiple times a week, and finding ways to be active together. This can be difficult at times with adolescents so even setting an example by the things we do for ourselves can make a difference. Sometimes I encounter parents who are not willing to make changes in their own lifestyle but ask the same from their children. This could cause some unwanted resentment and in some cases rebelling. Kids are very perceptive of their parents. If mom is frequently mentioning her weight or wanting to diet and talking negative about her own body, the daughter will notice that. The language used is very important. Instead of saying “I’m getting fat”, say “I’ve been eating unhealthy lately and it’s making me feel terrible.” Draw the correlation for them between eating healthy and feeling happy and energetic.
It can also help to involve someone who is knowledgeable in the field of nutrition. Some who can evaluate ones specific needs and provide motivational coaching, education, and action steps to follow to start making gradual, life-long, healthy lifestyle changes. Having an outside source can help a child open up about certain thoughts or ideas surrounding food as well. Finding ways to educate adolescents on the importance of eating a certain way and getting the appropriate nutrients will go a long way, more than telling an adolescent that it’s just good for them. I professional can really dive in deep to connect nutrition to the individual. They can also evaluate to see if there is something going on with their digestion, if they are absorbing the appropriate nutrients, and look for signs of deficiency. From that point, they can approach the interventions from a scientific point.