Special Diets and Special Concerns: 13 to 18 Years

A vegetarian diet can be very healthy. After all, the typical American diet does contain too much saturated fat (usually animal fat). Vegetarians can get the nutrients they need by making wise food selections.

Some teens have been vegetarians since childhood, while some teens become vegetarians during adolescence. As teens develop social awareness and independence, their growing freedom may be reflected in their diet. It is important that teens who practice vegetarianism get the essential vitamins and nutrients they need to support the rapid growth that occurs during puberty. Remind your teen that just cutting meat out of a diet will not guarantee better nutrition - it has to be planned.

There are several kinds of vegetarianism. Some vegetarians eliminate all foods from animal sources - they are called vegans. Others kinds of vegetarianism might allow eggs and/or dairy products. Vegan vegetarians must take care to avoid caloric deficiencies, especially from protein, since highly nutritious, calorie-rich foods may be eliminated by the vegan diet. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies such as B12, calcium, and iron deficiencies are also important to avoid. Talk to your teen's doctor about proper nutrition; he or she may recommend a registered dietitian who can design an eating plan that optimizes food intake based on your child's preferences.

Young Athletes
Some teenage athletes expend a great deal of time and energy practicing and competing in their chosen sports. Everything possible should be done to ensure optimal nutrition to support your teen's efforts. This includes the avoidance of risky dietary behaviors associated with his search for the competitive edge. Your teen's physical performance depends on the same balanced diet that will keep his nonathletic classmates healthy. Make sure your budding basketball star, tennis ace, or football pro is getting enough calories to support his level of exertion. You can do this by adding carbohydrates, such as potatoes, rice, pasta, and beans, to your teen's diet. These are excellent sources of energy.

Teaching your teen, especially your athlete, to enjoy water is one of the healthiest gifts you can give him. Teens should be urged to drink plenty of water before exercise and every 10 minutes or so during their activity. For every half hour of strenuous activity, your child should drink an extra 8 to 12 ounces of water - the drink of choice. When drinking sports drinks, avoid those that are high in sugar, which can cause cramping, nausea, and diarrhea. Also, make sure your child balances practice and performance with adequate rest and relaxation. These are as necessary to his well-being as proper nutrition.

Special Concerns

Ad-proofing Your Teen
To a shy teenage boy nervous about dating, or a teenage girl worried about her body, advertising can be especially persuasive. Teach your teen that the ads showing a group of smiling teens sharing a sugary, caffeinated soft drink are only aimed at selling that soda, not maintaining good nutrition. Share with your teenager medical information that shows the lack of long-term results for people who purchase diet aids or who spend fortunes on diet "plans" that don't emphasize proper nutrition for a lifetime. These ad-savvy lessons can serve your teenager well in many areas and can encourage him to be an educated consumer.

Overweight and Underweight Teens
While rapid growth and weight gain are part of puberty and adolescence, many children and teens become overweight because of too many calories and too little exercise. Encourage your child to be physically active, whether it be in an organized sport or individual pursuit. Whatever your child likes, if it gets him moving for about 30 minutes a day, encourage it. If your teen tends to sit around and watch television or play video games, try gently introducing more physical activities into your family life. Take a walk together, go for a bike ride, or offer to take your teen and some friends to the pool. Although many teens are anxious to spend time away from their parents, maybe you can take advantage of the small time you have together to get some exercise.

Be aware of the teen who gains too little weight, especially the teenage girl who begins to lose weight rapidly yet still complains she is fat. Young girls may worry about the body changes that puberty brings, partly in response to the societal emphasis on thinness. Full hips and breasts may make them feel "fat," and they can get caught up in behavior patterns known as eating disorders. Some girls become obsessed with body weight and image. They will eat very small amounts of food - inadequate amounts to support normal growth and health. Some refuse to eat at all. This condition is known as anorexia nervosa. Other teens, again mostly girls, practice binge-and-purge behavior, known as bulimia. Both conditions are potentially life-threatening. If you suspect either condition, consult your child's physician.

Teenage boys are prone to nutritional problems as well. Many adolescent boys yearn to "pump up" to be bigger or heavier. Beware of nutritional supplements that promise more muscles. If a teenage boy is eating properly and consuming the right amount of a variety of foods, nutritional supplements are just a waste of money. If you are concerned about your teenager's eating habits, talk with your child's doctor. Counseling is often an effective way to get these kids back on track.

Congratulations! The years of close supervision of your child's diet and your teachings about good nutrition are paying off. You find your baby has grown into a vital and healthy teenager. In the future, your teen will be teaching the next generation about eating right, thanks to you!

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics