Last year, I ran a group for eighth grade girls at a local junior high school. We met every Wednesday during lunch to discuss topics like organization, time management, social media, stress, friendships, nutrition, sleep, and overall wellness. At this school, the designated Wednesday hot lunch option was pizza—greasy, gooey portions so large that each slice could easily have been one-fifth of an extra-large pie. Week after week, I watched the girls come in with these huge pieces, and complain about feeling sluggish, tired, and overwhelmed. When I asked the girls how many of them ate at least three servings of vegetables daily, they sat frozen and unresponsive. It was clear that their nutritional habits were lacking, and their response correlated with 2011 CDC survey data suggesting that fewer than 15% of students ate three or more servings of vegetables per day. The recommended daily allowance is five or more servings per day.
When working with teens, I focus on recognizing each girl’s personal motivating factors. In this Girls Group, I knew that some of them were athletes with intense sports practices after school, and eating grease-laden pizza a couple hours beforehand could be an uncomfortable fuel choice. Most of the girls openly expressed concern about their academic performance, and weren’t making the connection between their morning breakfast choice and low concentration level in class. When I mentioned how better nutritional choices could potentially help the girls improve their energy, focus, and stamina, their interest piqued. They started asking questions about how to improve the nutrient density of their food choices. Over the next few weeks, they implemented changes, and noticed significant improvement in their energy level, mood, and overall sense of wellness.
Here are some tips on how to encourage teen girls proactively engaged in their nutritional choices:
Have girls come up with their own health and wellness goals. The media often presents us with single-focus view of healthy. Have girls think about their own wellness initiatives – do they want to have more energy? Feel better? Then have them reflect on their own choices and cause/effect – for instance, does eating sugar or caffeine-laden options cause a major crash? TIP: This can be a great opportunity for Parent/Daughter collaboration as everyone reflects on each person’s own food choices.
Collaborate to find easy morning options. Over 13% of high school girls report not eating breakfast, and I often hear complaints that students don’t have time to eat before school or don’t feel hungry when they first get up in the morning. TIP: Have girls come up with two or three different options that would work for them, one of which is a simple grab-and-go option that they can eat later if they are not hungry first thing in the morning, like coconut milk yogurt.
Focus on long-term sustainability. One of the most convincing factors for the junior high girls was when they realized that food choices had an impact on their energy levels. Some of them had personal athletic goals they were working towards, and the correlation between hot lunch and after school performance motivated them to make good choices. For many of them, being tired and sluggish also made it seem as though their homework was taking longer to complete. TIP: Have girls complete a food/mood journal for over a week, and track how their eating affected their mood (and vice versa!)
Come up with active ways to promote whole food engagement. Having girls research what nutrients they need and evaluate what vitamins and minerals they are missing in their current food patterns encourages them to be proactively involved in their food choices. Farmer’s Markets and weekly cooking and baking time can be both relaxing, creative, and fun ways to incorporate better choices. TIP: Have girls find a few nutrient dense foods (e.g. kale, broccoli, quinoa, sweet potatoes) and come up with several different ways to incorporate them into their daily or weekly life.
Don’t forget healthy fats. Oftentimes, girls go on a diet and restrict or eliminate all fats (adults do this too!). As pre-teens and teenagers, healthy fats are important for brain development and overall growth – not to mention healthy skin, hair and nails. Healthy fats help to deliver fat-soluble vitamins, keep our skin smooth, and provide a source of energizing fuel, according to Kathleen Zelman, a Director at the American Dietetic Association.
Adolescence is the time to build the foundation for nutritional wellness, and so many of our teen girls are currently on shaky ground. Parents, educators, and girls themselves have a responsibility to promote better nutritional habits so our girls have the energy, ability, and momentum to keep dreaming big and working hard without running out of steam.
Anna S. Mueller, Jennifer Pearson, Chandra Muller, Kenneth Frank and Alyn Turner. Sizing up Peers : Adolescent Girls' Weight Control and Social Comparison in the School Context
Journal of Health and Social Behavior 2010 51: 64 DOI: 10.1177/0022146509361191
Center for Disease Control (2011). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System: Selected 2011 National Health Risk Behaviors and Health Outcomes by Sex. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/yrbs/factsheets/index.htm
Zelman, K. Clearing up confusion on fats. United Health Care. Retrieved from http://www.uhc.com/source4women/health_wellness_tools_resources/n... February 16, 2013.