Feeding Teens: A Dietary Dilemma

by in nutrition, teen health April 5, 2016

There seems to be a general oversight in the medical field when it comes to teen health. Parents and physicians alike often focus our efforts on growing strong babies and then skip forward to supporting healthy adults, assuming that our able-bodied teens require little to no medical intervention during this in-between time period. However, as naturopathic doctors, we know that health is a life-long endeavor and adolescents are in need of more attention that they are currently getting.

During my clinical rounds in medical school, I had the privilege to do a rotation at a local high school. We offered support for a variety of health care concerns, from ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, to diabetes (Type 1 predominantly), as well as concerns regarding physique, social relationships, and sexual health. Despite the variation in conditions we’d see, there was an overarching similarity amongst almost every high-school patient. It was common practice for us to have granola bars and protein shake powders on hand, because inevitably 90% or more of our patients, regardless of their chief complaint that day, routinely reported not eating breakfast that morning.

So why is this happening? While some teens would report that they simply weren’t hungry upon waking, this was not the reason for the greater majority of my patients. The dilemma here actually has more to do with circadian rhythm (sleep cycle) shifts that occur during adolescence, and how this is at odds with most school schedules.

Every person has embedded within them an alarm clock that signals when we should be sleeping, and when we should be awake. Hormones ebb and flow throughout each 24-hour cycle in relation to this “clock” to make us feel drowsy or wide awake, and are responsible for the regularity in which times we decide to go to bed and wake each morning. This is the circadian rhythm. During adolescence, this clock shifts forward, like an enhanced daylight savings time, causing teens to feel tired later at night and to sleep in longer each morning. So while parents fight their frustrations of having teens that stay up late doing homework or interacting with friends, this is actually a physiological process taking place that is pretty much out of their control.

Despite the scientific community’s recognition of this phenomenon, the public school system has maintained an early morning start-time, usually beginning the day at 7:00 or 8:00 AM. This schedule forces teens, who often can’t fall asleep before 11:00 or midnight, to wake after only 5-6 hours of sleep, allowing themselves just enough time to catch a shower, grab their bag and run out the door to catch the bus and get to class on time. These students simply can’t afford the extra time it would take to prepare a halfway decent breakfast. This mixed with the complex homework load many high school students are given and the hours they may be spending at a job, makes sleep a precious and, at times, unobtainable commodity.

What’s the point here? There is a clear disconnect between the knowledge we have about breakfast being the most important meal of the day, and the reality of it’s essential non-existence during a critical growth period in people’s lives. In another article I wrote, I reviewed current research that demonstrates just how important this is. A study was conducted to determine the differences seen in teens after eating a high-carbohydrate breakfast, versus those that ate a high-protein breakfast. Researchers found that teens benefited most from high-protein breakfasts, experiencing longer satiety, and greater energy expenditure following the meal, which could play a crucial role as our teens are developing into healthy, non-overweight adults.

However, the core problem still exits: where can these kids find the time (and money) to make high quality, protein dense meals? Perhaps the answer is simpler than expecting our teens, or their parents, to become executive chefs of their own kitchens and instead we can tackle this dilemma from a more practical approach. High protein doesn’t necessarily have to mean scrambled egg whites with sausage and toast. There are numerous on-the-go options that may be exactly what these kids can make time for. Hard-boiling eggs the night before, or putting together a to-go container with apple slices, celery sticks and some kind of nut butter can be a great and easy way to get high-protein, nutrient-dense food into teens first thing in the morning as they’re running out the door.

The adolescent years are a critical time period for growth, learning, and maturation. Recognizing this, it would be naïve and irresponsible to let our teens continue to fall through the cracks of health care when such a simple and attainable health modification can be made to support their bodies, brains, and energy levels. Health doesn’t have to be complicated; we just need to re-frame the problem to see the solution. Offering quick and easy, on-the-go protein snacks should be a common practice in our adolescent population, and one well within their “I’ve gotta run” reach.