What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of your teenage years? For me, it’s frizzy hair and acne. When I dig a little deeper in my memories to find a word to characterize those years, it has to be: rebellious. For instance, I insisted to dye the tips of my hair electric pink, long before it was in fashion. Furthermore, I developed an unexplained passion for junk food. There is something about this age that makes you feel invincible. The hazards of this kind of food meant nothing to me. That finger-licking fried chicken and those juicy burgers were irresistible. In fact, these cravings persisted regardless of the endless number of times I suffered from food poisoning.
There is a strong link between adolescence and unhealthy eating patterns. On the contrary to my teenage self, I now truly believe in the healing power of food. Food has a direct effect on our physical wellbeing, our behaviours and emotions as well. Because I know that it’s not easy for teenagers to make healthy choices, I decided to interview The Integrative Nutrition Health Coach Vally Hamza to learn from her experience. While receiving her training at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York, Vally learned about many dietary theories and lifestyle coaching methods.
Hi Vally, you exert a lot of effort to guide teenagers to make healthy eating choices. What made you interested in this age group in specific?
I work mostly with teenagers because that was the time I struggled the most with my weight and body image. With more than 12 years of experience in a Scout activity, known as “Mouvement Partage” in Sacre-Coeur Heliopolis school, I gained a considerable understanding of this age group. I also received many trainings due to my participation in CISV camps. I spend one month every summer at a camp in a different country with teens from all over the world. My target is to support teenagers make the right food choices by presenting them with a new fun and creative experience called “Healthytude Teens”. This should positively affect their health and happiness.
Teenagers are constantly on the go. What would you suggest for handy meals or snacks?
Mothers of teens should always provide them with healthy satisfying snacks and lunch boxes. They should also include options packed with healthy ingredients that their teens enjoy. This will minimize the chance to opt for junk food. They should stay away from candies and cookies, to avoid the chemicals and empty calories that the body doesn’t benefit from.
Here are some ideas:
• Fruits: for extra energy try adding peanut or almond butter to them.
• Popcorn: add a healthy topping like sea salt or paprika.
• Fruit smoothies: choose your favorite fruits and blend them all together with some yogurt and ice.
• Vegetable sticks and a dip: carrots and hummus for example. Guacamole is also a great dip option.
• Dark chocolate, nuts and dried fruits.
Athletic teens need to eat meals that boost energy levels without being fattening. What are the most common mistakes that they make and how to avoid them? Teen athletes need extra calories to fuel both their sport’s performance and their growth. In order to achieve peak performance and build up muscles, they need more calories daily. Otherwise, they won’t be as fast and as strong as they could potentially be, and may not be able to maintain their weight. Athletic teens need to consume a combination of:
• Vegetables and fruits
• Healthy options of carbohydrates ( like oats, brown rice, whole wheat bread, quinoa, and legumes)
• Good sources of Protein (like animal protein, eggs, nuts, and beans)
• Healthy sources of fat (such as salmon, avocado, oil, and nuts)
• Water: Teenage athletes risk dehydration if they don’t continually drink water throughout their physical activity. Cut fruits can be added to water for a flavour boost.
On Television you talked several times about lunch boxes. They are always a concern for mothers. How to prepare them the right way and how can mothers engage their teens in the process?
Teens are more alert and focused when they’re fuelled with healthy food. The content of their lunchbox should provide them with all of the energy they need to get through an active day. Sugary fatty foods don’t provide long lasting energy nor necessary vitamins and minerals. They also increase the risk of obesity.
– Pack a balanced lunchbox with vegetables (veggie sticks), proteins (hummus, eggs, foul), carbs (whole wheat bread, quinoa, brown rice, oats), and Fruits (you can cut some fruits and add nut butter)
– Get creative with adding vegetables and fruits: you can make “egg muffins” with vegetables in a cupcakes’ tray for example, instead of the regular omelette, or add some fruits to your cake.
How about unusual eating situations like holidays, vacations and dinning out? How can a mother advise her teenager to make healthy choices in these situations? First of all, it’s ok to eat chocolate. A treat from time to time while on vacation or during the holidays is very normal. However, not everyday, so if a teen goes out a lot my advise in this situation is: – Skip on fried food: try grilled or baked options instead. – Watch the portion size: share a plate with a friend. – Be wise about sides: exclude fries, chips, rice, or noodles. Wiser options are grilled vegetables, salads, or baked potato. – Variety and quality: Opt for chicken and vegetables rather than a big plate of macaroni and cheese for instance.
What are the most common challenges that teenagers face when they try to adopt a healthy diet?
It’s hard to choose an apple or a salad for a snack when their friends are eating gummy bears and chips. Teens usually want to maintain a healthy weight and overcome harmful relationships with food. They want to be more confident in their bodies without sacrificing their happiness and their social life.
With peer pressure and such obstacles, how can parents help their teenagers make their diet compatible with their lifestyle?
• Be a role model: Don’t ask your child to eat vegetables while you are eating junk food.
• Cook more meals at home: Homemade food is definitely healthier than restaurant food.
• Get your teens involved: Shop for groceries and prepare meals together. You can teach them about different foods and how to read food labels.
• Make healthy snacks readily available.
Mothers of teenagers still make most grocery shopping decisions. What advice would you give them so they can help their young adults eat healthier at home?
Add more colors, that means more fruits and vegetables, anything that is natural and not in box or a can. They should also buy more whole foods that have not been processed, packaged or altered in any way from their natural state.
It is common that many teenagers don’t favour traditional home food and prefer unhealthy options instead . How can mothers of teens modify the meals that their children love to eat in a way that satisfies their tastes without compromising their health ?
It’s now easy to find creative and healthy recipes online. They can cook whatever their kids or teens love in a healthy way rather than using harmful ingredients. For example, honey can be used as a sweetener instead of sugar while baking cakes. Oats can replace flour and almond milk can be used instead of dairy milk. Fries baked in the oven and salted lightly are a healthier option than French fries. It’s also better to grill or bake chicken rather than frying it.
One of the challenges I personally face when I am eating out, is the fear of poor hygiene in many restaurants. I usually avoid eating salads outside home. Teenagers usually do not hangout in fancy restaurants, so this issue should be put in consideration. What would be the safest options they can choose?
In this case focus on grilled or roasted meat and chicken rather than fried. Many menu items can be made healthier with a few tweaks and substitutions. You can ask the waiter to hold the sauce or dressing or serve it on the side. Instead of a double cheeseburger, for example, they can try regular single burger without cheese. A pizza, can be ordered with less cheese and with a thin crust instead of regular crust.
Sugar has been proven to be one of our biggest enemies. Why and how can it be avoided or substituted in foods and drinks?
Sugar gives us a lot of energy at first, then it makes us really tired and cranky. Consuming sugar makes you crave it more which increases the risk of obesity and diabetes.
Studies show that overconsumption of sugar may also disrupt a teen’s ability to think clearly due to impaired brain cell signalling .
Our bodies do not need white sugar and there are other alternatives:
• Eat sweet vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, carrots and squash.
• Replace sugary juices or soda with naturally sweetened water or teas.
• Bake your own desserts and treats using natural sweeteners like honey or dates.
. Eat more grains, chewing well to release their natural sweetness.
What do you think of nutrition bars?
Here in Egypt, they are usually full of sugar and artificial ingredients so I don’t recommend them at all. I would replace them with homemade energy bars made with dates, oats, coconut oil and other healthy ingredients (I made this recipe on TV before.)
Processed foods, artificial flavors and colours or chemicals are toxins. Many studies even linked these to behavioral issues in children. What would you advice mothers to look for when they read the labels on food?
Avoid sugar, artificial sweeteners, high-fructose corn syrup, soy, corn or canola oil, and artificial colors. Always go for seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables and anything that is natural.
Emotional eating is one of the common causes of obesity. Also the hormonal changes during adolescence can result in an emotional roller coaster. How can this issue be dealt with?
Not many of us make the connection between eating and our feelings. But understanding what drives emotional eating can help parents take steps to help their kids. Emotional eating is turning to food for comfort, stress relief, or as a reward rather than to satisfy hunger, which leads to weight gain. Often, feelings of regret and guilt follow. While emotional eating can help temporarily, it is a superficial solution because after eating, the problem still remains or may worsen. Overcoming this issue needs to start from the inside out. First, identify the cause (boredom, comfort during stressful times, lack of sleep). Parents should talk to the teen and explain why emotional overeating occurs. The teenager should never feel judged. The conversation should be positive, upbeat and motivational. Parents must be role models, and never use food as reward. If this doesn’t work, health coaches and therapists can help teenagers address their feelings, pinpoint their negative eating patterns and get them on a healthy track.
How can parents be good role models?
Teens won’t perceive healthy eating as important if it is not something that they see parents doing. Parents should:
• Eat the way they want their teen to eat
• Avoid emphasizing “good” and “bad” foods, instead they should teach their child that he or she needs to balance nutritious food.
• Show ways for managing stress that do not include eating.
• Encourage your teens to help prepare meals.
The whole family should eat together, this lets the teens see that their parents are eating healthy food.
How can we raise the awareness to prevent eating disorders?
As a health coach, I offer workshops to schools for teens. In addition, I offer workshops for parents with their teens during the weekends about healthy lifestyle in a fun, creative way.
Thank you very much Vally for the insightful interview.
You can contact Vally directly on her email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustrations by Noha Hussein. Since she finished studying fine arts in 2008, she has been exploring different types of art, including painting, calligraphy and photography. Follow her accounts on Instagram: ‘noha.arts’ and ‘nohaiste’.