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Why teens need proper nourishment

Nutrition expert Lucinda Miller (NatureDoc Clinic) was recently invited to Bryanston to deliver training for all staff on how food choices affect teenagers. In this special guest post, Lucinda explains why encouraging teens to make healthy food choices is important now and even more so for their future health and happiness… 

Nutrition expert Lucinda Miller

When some teens seem to get by on crisps, chips, sweets and fizzy drinks, you could be forgiven for thinking ‘What’s all the fuss about healthy food?’ The truth is that medical research is increasingly establishing the links between ultra-processed and sugar-laden food, and poor mental health, lower IQ, and physical health conditions. Conversely, a well-balanced diet, avoiding the nasties and loading up on veg is associated with better outcomes in these areas. 

But healthy food doesn’t have as good marketing or instant gratification as sweet treats, brightly coloured packets, or convenient ready-meals, and teens are especially susceptible to the lure of these things. And when the human brain continues developing well into their twenties, it’s worth trying to get the good habits in before it’s too late. 

Food and diet choices are extremely complex these days, and the media sends lots of mixed messages which can confuse even the most educated. This can manifest in a myriad of different relationships with food amongst teenage children. For example: 

· some teens live to eat, have a passion for food and love to try new things; 

· others are more cautious and conservative when it comes to what they eat; 

· then there are those who don’t seem to know the difference between a meal and a snack, and they graze all day; 

· the latest Instagram foodie trend captivates others; and 

· some have developed such a poor relationship with food that they control what, when and how much they eat, which can potentially lead to eating disorders. 

Sometimes when kids are let loose for the first time in a boarding environment, their eating habits go downhill, as this can be the first time that they have had to make their own food choices. If left to their own devices, their tuck boxes, Amazon Pantry orders and toast habits can start to crowd out their appetite for the nourishing meals provided at school. I know that Bryanston is keen to nurture healthy eating habits in all its pupils, so that by the time pupils leave the School, they are ready for full independence and able to make healthy choices for themselves. This is why Bryanston is encouraging healthier tuck box choices.

Whether you are a foodie or not, it’s important to understand why a healthy diet is so important for your children, and I am going to share with you some key snippets of recent research focused on child and teen nutrition. It’s not too late to upgrade your child’s eating habits and encourage them to eat more of the good stuff. So here goes... 

Why at least five a day? 

Firstly, children benefit from eating at least five different fruits, vegetables and salads a day and the variety really counts. Studies have found that children and adolescents who consume more fresh fruit and veg have higher self-esteem, are more creative and are less likely to be bullied – so it’s certainly not just about weight and growth. 

The gut 

The gut microbiome is a rapidly growing area of research in both child and adult health, and vegetables, fruits, salads, pulses, seeds, and live yoghurt help to build healthy, diverse bacterial colonies in the gut. There were over 15,000 papers published on the microbiome in 2019 alone, and studies have now found how important probiotic foods and supplements are for gut health in a huge variety of conditions that affect teenagers including eczema, asthma and acne; as well as the formation of neurotransmitters - the brain hormones that regulate impulsivity, motivation and keep teens calm and well balanced. 


Healthy food and IQ 

IQ is also known to be affected by diet, and research has found that a diet high in processed sugary foods can reduce IQ and equally a healthy diet full of fresh food can increase IQ. School performance was also measured in a study of over 350,000 teenagers and those who consumed healthy foods instead of ultra-processed foods generally performed better. It was found that eating three times per day without skipping meals (especially breakfast) and frequent intakes of fresh fruits, vegetables and milk were related to good school performance. However, regularly eating convenience foods including soft drinks, instant noodles, fast foods, sweets and chocolate more than seven times a week showed a correlation with poor school performance. 

Inflammation and mental health 

A healthy diet is also key for keeping chronic inflammation in check. Pesky inflammation drives many of our modern-day disease states including autoimmune conditions, cancers and cardiovascular problems, so it’s super important to take this seriously. Chronic inflammation is also closely linked to negative mental health outcomes, and it’s thought that a diet rich in freshly prepared nutritious food is a critical step to keeping children happy, healthy and well. 

Much of the research on chronic inflammation is drawn from the work of Professor Edward Bullmore, who is the Head of Psychiatry Research at Cambridge University. He writes on the link between inflammation and depression in his book The Inflamed Mind. The AVON study is an insightful research study where 4,500 perfectly happy, healthy and well nine-year-old children were tested for inflammation markers, and those with higher inflammatory markers were more likely to develop depression and psychosis by 18 years. This data is so significant that researchers are using it for predicting bipolar disease, eating disorders and even suicide risk. 

It is thought that food choices and lifestyle can make all the difference at preventing this inflammation from building up and causing havoc later on down the line. A Mediterranean diet rich in fresh vegetables, salads, fruits, olive oil, fish, wholegrains, pulses and seeds help to reduce inflammation, whereas a diet rich in ultra-processed convenience foods drives inflammation up. 

This is why encouraging your children to make healthy food choices at mealtimes, and in the comfort of their boarding houses is important now and even more so for their future health and happiness.  

Lucinda Miller is the clinical lead of the NatureDoc team, specialising in child and teen nutrition and functional medicine. She is the author of The Good Stuff cookbook and is a mum of three. 

On carrots and curiosity: eating fruit and vegetables is associated with greater flourishing in daily life.

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