Healthy eating for teenagers: encouraging young people to enjoy a balanced diet
Your own attitude to food can help your child understand that the best diet is a balanced diet. Use our teen diet action checklist to help your child enjoy their food, and break bad diet habits.
"The most crucial thing when it comes to our diet is eating a balance of all foods," explains eating disorder expert and leading UK psychotherapist Dr Susie Orbach. "Getting hung up on labelling certain foods as 'good' and others as 'bad' isn’t helpful – it creates too many rules that dictate your relationship with food, and encourage disordered eating. It's also usually wrong. Low fat foods can be loaded with sugar and fillers to give taste when a normal fat version would be nutritionally better."
Girls and teenage diets
It’s common for girls' anxieties about their bodies to play out through food. Most girls experiment with a diet at some stage, often believing they should be restricting their eating in some way.
As they grow up, some girls become frightened of food and start to treat it as an enemy – which, unsurprisingly, then makes the foods they deny themselves particularly appealing. It’s vital that girls develop an early understanding of how to nourish their mind and body with nutritious foods.
Many girls swing between dieting and bingeing, because having restricted certain foods, they feel ravenously hungry, and crave the things they denied themselves. If your child is doing this, try explaining it could have the opposite effect to the one they’re hoping for.
Breaking the ‘bad food' habit
Dr Susie Orbach's book, Susie Orbach on Eating, shows calorie-restricted diets can slow the metabolism, and make it harder to maintain a healthy weight. Plus, there’s nothing as tempting as food that's off-limits. Making all foods allowable, and not labelling them 'good' or 'bad', makes it easier to make wise choices.
This was the message Barbara used with daughter Hannah when she started mentioning dieting. “I explained that enjoying a healthy diet is not the same as cutting out food,” she says. “I feel it’s important not to make junk and sugary foods seem better by banning them. Through giving her a bit more control and just talking about foods, I’ve managed to help her improve her diet.”
The relationship between food and mood
Explain to your child that dieting doesn’t just affect weight. Good nutrition improves your body on the outside (skin, hair and weight), and studies published in the British Journal of Psychiatry show that the right foods, can also improve our body on the inside, from energy levels to mental wellbeing. For example, scientists in France and the UK found that eating a lot of processed food increased the likelihood of depression, whereas those who ate more wholefoods, were least likely to be depressed.
Leading by example
Encourage your child to develop an awareness of balance in their diet, by tweaking your own eating habits, and attitude to food. If they see you enjoying a healthy, balanced diet – and its positive effects on how you look and feel – they’ll be more likely to adopt the same approach to their own eating.
Use our action checklist to help you and your family forget about ‘bad’ food, and enjoy the benefits of a healthy, balanced diet instead.
To protect privacy we’ve changed the names of people whose stories we tell on these pages, but the stories are genuine.
Breaking the 'bad food' habit
Of course, when eaten in large quantities, foods high in sugar, salt and saturated fat are bad for our health, so teach your child the importance of a balanced diet
Get your kid involved in the kitchen
Cook meals from scratch at home as much as possible, and involve your child in food shopping and preparation. This will give them a better understanding of different ingredients, and why they are important
Make eating guilt-free for all the family
Ensure your own diet is healthy and balanced, and doesn’t restrict any kind of food unless there’s good reason (such as an allergy). Show that all foods can be eaten without guilt, and explain how you relish different foods, for different hungers
Explain your own thoughts about food
For example if you eat something and then regret it, say: “I really fancied some of that, but it didn’t sit well with me. I think I just needed a little bit”
Ditch the fad diets
They often rely on restricting foods, meaning we miss out on vital nutrients. We tend to crave foods we try to limit, and when we submit to the craving, we gobble it hurriedly, missing the enjoyment of eating it. Then, before you know it, the craze has changed - omitting something else entirely
- Share the Body of a Champion quiz, and see if your child can guess athletes' talents just from their body shape. They might be surprised at the results
- Use the action checklist above to start a conversation about ‘bad’ food and diets. What foods does your child think are ‘bad’ and ‘good’? What made them decide some foods were ‘bad’?
- Encourage your child to talk to friends about food. What do they learn from what their mates say?