How Foods You Prepare for Your Kids Impact Their Mental Health and Focus

Two smiling kids mixing saladJust the word “teenager” conjures up images of young people laughing and devouring food. Adolescents seem to have voracious appetites, and parents sometimes refer to them as “bottomless pits” when it comes to food consumption. While it’s tempting to keep convenient foods on hand that they can grab on the go, those foods might not give them the fuel that they need for proper mental function. Instead, they need a balance of fats, proteins, amino acids and other essential nutrients in order to focus on their school work.

The Teen’s Developing Brain

Your teen’s brain keeps developing until his early 20s, according to Dr. Neville Golden, the chief of adolescent medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine in California. If a teen doesn’t ingest proper nutrition during this time, he will struggle with learning new tasks and information. In addition to proper hydration and rest, the food he eats will provide him with energy for growth.

An Overview of Essential Nutrients

The American Academy of Pediatrics states that teens need three meals per day and two healthy snacks. Instead of labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” they should be sure to eat foods that help the brain. They emphasize what we have heard for years — the importance of breakfast, especially when teens have a test. That first meal of the day should include protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats, carrying your son over until lunchtime. If he doesn’t eat at all, he might feel sluggish and struggle with concentration. This quick guideline will help you plan for your teen’s food consumption needs:

Calories – Teen boys need about 2,800 calories per day — more than any other group of individuals.
Protein – Your son should consume between 45 and 60 grams of protein daily, slightly more if he is active or involved in sports. The intake of proteins and amino acids can affect general health, including weight, temperament and sleep schedules.
Fruits and vegetables – Males need about two cups of fruit daily, which delay aging, and three cups of vegetables to protect decision-making skills.
Antioxidants – These provide the brain with energy and fight off free radicals.
Fat – While the AAP places a recommended limit of 30 percent of daily calories — or about 930 calories — for teens, these should come from foods such as eggs, avocados, salmon, coconut oil, nuts and olive oil. While saturated and trans fats compromise brain function, Omegas 3 and 6, the superstars of fats, boost brain performance. These must come from the diet, usually in fatty fish and nuts.
Carbohydrates – At least half and up to 60 percent of a teen’s calories should come from carbs, or about 130 grams of carbs daily. You can find great sources in whole grains, peas, beans and vegetables. Avoid processed foods, such as sugary drinks, candy and syrup. Another great source of complex carbs, found in whole grains, is brown rice or popcorn.
Calcium – Teens need about 1,300 mg of calcium daily. They can obtain the necessary minimum requirement in calcium-fortified products and dairy. Kale, an often-overlooked source of calcium, also boasts of plethora of additional vitamins.

Additional necessary nutrients include from 8 to 11 mg of daily iron and 600 IU of Vitamin D, usually found in milk or dairy products but also metabolized from the sun.

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