Food and your teen
Food can be the friend, the enemy, or a weapon of self-destruction. Here’s how parents can help.
Many teens start to develop a complex relationship with food. They can use food as a crutch or sometimes as a means of control. It can be something that comforts and yet it can also become the enemy. Unfortunately, when it comes to food, teenagers don't often think in terms of nutritional value. Instead they are more concerned with how food makes them feel ("I feel comforted when I eat a bowl of ice-cream"), whether or not something will make them "fat", and some simply don't care and will eat whatever mom makes. Which means you as a parent can play a critical role in helping your teenager eat healthily, and more importantly, help them develop a healthy attitude towards food.

There are some signs that indicate a more serious problem that needs to be addressed. However, it needs to be noted that many times a child has a poor appetite, not because they have an eating disorder, but because they are depressed or stressed.

Eating disorders have other symptoms that go with a poor or overly eager appetite and include the following:
  • Dramatic weight loss or gain
  • Wearing baggy clothes to hide body shape or weight loss
  • Obsession with weight, kilojoules, fat content of foods and exercise
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom after meals
  • Requests for diet pills or laxatives
  • Fear of eating around and with others
  • Unusual food rituals such as shifting food around on the plate or hiding food in strange places (closets, under the bed)
  • Self-defeating comments after eating
  • Mood swings, depression and fatigue
  • Chronic desire to diet all the time (often with the "latest" fad diet)
  • Blaming failure or rejection on their weight
How to encourage healthy eating

The most important thing to remember is to not make a huge issue out of food. It is unnecessary to talk kilojoules and strict dieting with a teenager, even if they are overweight.  It is all too easy to push a teen over the edge, making them frantic about everything they consume. Rather, take a laid-back approach and work together as a family. That way, it isn't all about them and their problem. In the end it comes down to education ? teaching your child about a healthy lifestyle and what their body needs to function at its best. Here are a few tips:

1.  Pack them a healthy lunch for school.  Instead of giving them money to buy chips and Coke, rather pack in a fruit juice, some fruit and nuts and a healthy sandwich.

2.  Eat healthy meals as a family.

3.  Never tell your child that he or she is fat. This can drive an already vulnerable child to an obsession with food.  Rather, suggest healthy alternatives such as grilled food instead of fried or pretzels instead of chips.  Sometimes they simply don't know that there are other options out there.

4. The media provides a very unhealthy picture of what an ideal body type is.  Encourage your teen to love themselves the way they are and to focus on being healthy, not a certain weight or jean size.  

5.  Never speak of yourself as fat or needing to diet in front of your child. They will pick up on your negative body image and be encouraged to diet themselves. You are a role model to your child and even although they appear ambivalent at this age, what you say and do are actually very important to them.

6. Don't say that someone looks good because they are thin. Rather focus on other attributes such as pretty eyes, being friendly or a nice smile. If you are going to say that someone is attractive in front of your child, especially if it is one of his or her peers, make sure it is because of something other than weight or size.

Michelle Minnaar has degrees in Psychology and Education and regularly conducts workshops for teens and parents on topics such as self-esteem, depression, eating disorders, drug abuse and learning problems.

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