How diet can improve teen health

Good nutrition and a 'healthy food environment' are vital for development and the creation of healthy habits to set young people up for a healthy life, explains Senior Lecturer (Human Nutrition), Dr Anita Lawrence in this bite-sized lecture. 

Dr Lawrence teaches subjects for the Human Nutrition major in the Bachelor of Science and the Bachelor of Biomedicine.

“Nutrition is important for everyone because what we eat has an impact on our health and well-being, but it's particularly important for adolescents because they're going through this rapid period of growth and development. What they eat as teenagers will actually impact their current physical and mental health and also that in the future,” says Dr Lawrence.

“It's important that young people consume a diet and dietary pattern that sets them up to have a lower risk of developing some of the diseases that are very common in adulthood.”

Healthy diet and eating habits during childhood and adolescence can help to reduce the risk of issues such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, as well as decreasing the likelihood of becoming overweight or obese.

A healthy diet is also important to ensure young people are able to get all the nutrients they need for development. For example, during adolescence about one third of your bone is still being laid down, so a calcium-rich diet can help protect future bone health.

What makes a healthy diet?

“There's a lot of information out there about diet and it's important that the information you consult is based on the best scientific evidence. I'd recommend the Australian Dietary Guidelines and the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. They were developed by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and offer the best available evidence about a diet for health,” says Dr Lawrence.

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating outlines five healthy, nutritious food groups recommended to base meals around: vegetables and legumes, fruit, grains, meat and alternatives, and dairy and alternatives. It also outlines what a serve of each food group is and how many serves per day are recommended for adolescents. Not all foods and drinks are nutritious and healthy, and the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating recommends that these should be consumed ‘only sometimes and in small amounts’.

“Most Australian teenagers actually eat a diet that's very different to these (Australian Guide to Healthy Eating) recommendations,” says Dr Lawrence. “Their intake of all of the five healthy food groups is much lower than is recommended and their intake of the unhealthy foods is far higher than the maximum recommended.”

“Overall the average teenager consumes around 40 percent of their total energy from these unhealthy foods and drinks. The trouble with the unhealthy foods is that they're taking the place of the healthy foods within the diet.”

Why do we eat unhealthy foods?

“The reason people like them [unhealthy foods] so much is they're actually manufactured to be appealing and tasty. We tend to over consume them because they tend to be high in fat and sugar and lacking in fibre and protein.”

How can parents help to develop healthy food habits?

Parents can help to gradually build healthy eating habits by creating a healthy food environment for their children.

Reduce the amount of cake, biscuits, soft drink and chips that are available at home. Instead cook a wide variety of vegetables and salads at main mealtimes. Buy whole grain bread, fill up fruit bowls for snacking and load the fridge with milk, yogurt and cheese.

A nutritious, calcium and fibre-rich breakfast every morning is key. It is also a great idea to encourage teens to cook with you. “If they’re involved in preparing the vegetables or making the salad, or even making the main meal, they’re more likely to eat it,” says Dr Lawrence.