The Teenage Mind

The internal experience of the young adult

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind: Adolescent Nutrition

What are good eating habits?

A healthy body and a healthy mind go hand in hand. There is no such thing as a mind/body split. One of the kindest things you can do for your mental health is take care of your physical health. If you feel good physically, the chances are better you will feel good mentally. AA groups know this with their famous acronym –H.A.L.T. - Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. This is when we are vulnerable. This is when we grab fast food or alcohol or get into car accidents due to fatigue. What is the antidote? Good nutrition, exercise, and rest. Simple things -  that Grandma knew.

Admittedly, good nutrition for teens is a battle for parents. We don’t have much control. I used to say ….I can’t fight the whole culture. I never introduced my kids to soda. But, the baby sitter did. I didn’t encourage fast food but my sons wanted to be like all the other families who ate in their cars. And, I had little control over my adolescent offspring when they started driving through Carl’s on their own after school. Naturally, they put on extra pounds.  I can’t fight the whole culture. And..this is a culture of fatty, fast foods. Probably, the most a parent can hope for is that eating fatty, fast foods is a developmental stage that adolescents will experiment with and pass through rapidly.

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Eating is social. I remember sharing French fries, cokes and gossip with friends. I remember sitting in a boy’s car and eating my first giant burrito. These were great times! The food was good but sharing food with friends is what I really remember. This is adolescent bonding and teens need their friends. They are  influenced by their adolescent friends and a need to belong. Fortunately, by the time I hit college, health foods were trendy. My friends were serving me rice and veggies in place of burritos and French fries. Adolescent food choices are influenced by peers like so much of adolescent behavior.

So, what are healthy eating habits? What is good nutrition? Nutritional knowledge is changing all of the time. When I grew up….decades ago,  a dinner plate frequently had a large piece of meat, potatoes, and some vegetables. In college, I was influenced by science courses in biology, ecology, and the book,  Diet for a Small Planet and began eating lower on the food chain, e.g. more grains, rice, veggies, etc. At my recent visit to college transfer day, the menu was primarily grains and greens. We are definitely experiencing a green revolution in energy and eating. It took a generation but these ideas are becoming main stream. At any rate, where to start and does the government play a role in this?

Guidelines for healthy eating can be found at http://www.mypyramid.gov/index.html. The current nutritional paradigm is a pyramid.  This website is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and really is pretty cool. The home page of MyPyramid explains basic nutrition and proportions of grains, vegetables, fruits, milk, and in smaller proportions – meats, oils, and sweets. Keep looking and you will find interactive tools, such as: personalized menu planners customized for your own gender, age, weight, and height. There are eating and activity trackers.  MYFood-a-pedia is a search engine that describes portions and food groups for every imaginable food. There are even adudiopodcasts with dietary guidelines, including: eating out, snack tips, and organizing your refrigerator.  Also included is a calculator to help with estimating expenses. Never has so much information been so readily available. There is information for special populations like babies and pregnant moms , and kids up to the age of 11 years old. My only gripe is that there are no special guidelines for teens. USDA, would you like my help? Can you add me to your payroll?

My regular readers know that I am interested in the how health care reform will help teens, and even more specifically, what are the physical and mental health provisions for adolescents? Toward this end, I have been writing a series on adolescent health. The first few posts reviewed threats to adolescent survival: motor vehicle accidents, guns, and suicide. Now, I am focusing on adolescent nutrition and later on exercise, reproductive health, drugs, and in all of these topics – the role of government.

In my last post, I mentioned Michelle Obama’s focus on fighting obesity in kids. Toward that end, a very simple and real change the government can impact is food available to kids in schools. The schools are government organizations and some kids get meals paid for by our taxes. These meals should be nutritional.   Michelle Obama’s program, “Let’s Move” and the Child Nutrition Bill aim to “set higher standards for school meals by requiring more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains” and less fat and salt. Another goal is to eliminate sodas, candy, and chips from school vending machines. Ultimately the aim is eliminate childhood obesity in a generation and produce happier, healthier Americans. Noble aims and noble goals. I hope we can accomplish these. I say, “healthy body, healthy mind.”

 

 

 

Jann Gumbiner, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and clinical professor at the University of California, Irvine College of Medicine.

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