Growing, growing, gone . . . That’s what it feels like in my house. Every time I turn around I find a boy hanging on the refrigerator door looking for more food or a boy who can’t fit his feet into the cleats I just bought him. The money I spend on food and new shoes won’t keep them home; when my boys’ growth spurts are over it will mean they will be gone, off to college, out of my refrigerator and technically no longer boys. So, while they are under my roof, how can I feed them to support their drastic development?
In the first year of life, a baby grows an average of 10 inches and triples her body weight. It isn’t until puberty that a child grows this much again. During these times, nutrition is essential. Bones, muscles, tendons, joints, skin, hair and organs are all built from the nutrients a baby or adolescent consumes.
According to the National Institutes of Health, osteoporosis has been called “‘a pediatric disease with geriatric consequences,’ because the bone mass attained in childhood and adolescence is an important determinant of lifelong skeletal health. The health habits your kids are forming now can make, or literally break, their bones as they age.”
This is true for more than just bones. Muscular and emotional development also peak in the 20s, so ideally kids eat well during these developmental years. On the flip side, the less healthful food choices our kids make as growing tweens and teens can lead them down the path toward diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
How do you know if your kid is in a growth spurt? Seemingly oversized feet are often the first sign. When you see his pants are suddenly too short, his wrists poke out of his shirts and he can barely jam his feet into shoes that recently fit, you can bet he is growing. Also, notice knobby joints such as knees, elbows and shoulders that seem to jut awkwardly. Boys’ shoulders will broaden while girls’ hips will widen. Hormones may prompt pimples, hair everywhere, voice changes and a distinctly new body odor. Kids will be tired, sleep later (into Saturday afternoon if you let them) and even may nap unexpectedly. Lastly, your teen may be hungry all of the time.
During this period of growth, teens may grow 13 to 14 inches and add 40 pounds. Although many boys seem to pack away the calories and still remain rail thin, milkshakes and french fries are not the smartest way to add weight or satiate hunger. These foods do not give kids the nutrients they need, and they set up unhealthy eating habits that will be hard to break once the growth spurt is over.
Although much of a child’s height is dictated by genetics, daily choices such as sleep and food can affect a child’s trajectory. Human growth hormone triggers growth in teens and most of that is released during sleep, so a teen who is burning the candle at both ends and missing zzzs may not release as much of this necessary hormone.
Protein is the building block of all tissue such as muscles, bones, heart, lungs, skin, and hair. The average teen needs ½ gram of protein per pound of body weight. More protein does not necessarily mean more growth and too much protein can have negative health effects. Bones are made of the minerals calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese and potassium, as well as vitamins D and K. Healthy fats continue to build a child’s brain, and brain development is key during adolescence as teens develop the ability to think abstractly, think long-term and make rational decisions.
Growing kids also need complex carbohydrates from vegetables and whole grains to give them energy, in the form of glycogen, to get through their long days of school, sports, extracurricular activities and hours of homework. The body can only store a certain amount of glycogen at a time so kids need to constantly replenish.
How can you help your teen eat all of these important nutrients when teens are notorious for hitting fast food joints with their friends, reaching for candy, and toting a Starbucks cup as a sign of their growing maturity and independence?
1. Keep healthy food accessible so they can grab and go.
2. Keep a jug of water out on the counter so they are reminded to hydrate.
3. At dinner, put extra “filler foods” (sweet potatoes, potatoes, winter squash, brown rice, quinoa, polenta, whole-wheat pasta, corn muffins) on the table along with the vegetables and protein.
4. Schedule mealtime so kids don’t miss a healthful meal or end up snacking their way through the day.
5. Have hummus and crackers or another healthy snack out when they get home. I often leave a plate of fruit and vegetables on my son’s desk for him to snack on while he studies. But don’t let snacks sabotage meals.
6. Offer a healthy bedtime snack, one that is sugar- and caffeine-free, especially if they stay up studying long after dinnertime.
7. Encourage your kids to eat to the 90:10 formula , with 90 percent of their food healthful and the other 10 percent sweets and treats. This helps them learn to self-moderate.
8. Encourage exercise because it keeps their metabolism firing, and supports sleep and healthy muscle growth.
9. Prioritize the family dinner as it is proven to help children develop better eating habits and closer relationships.
If you child is going through a growth spurt, it means he or she will be launching from your kitchen and your care soon. Kids will need to know how to feed themselves without your rules, home-cooked meals and healthy stocked pantry. Feed them well during the growing period so when they are gone, they know how to do it themselves.
First published in The Washington Post on Tuesday, April 3, 2018.