Strategies to Help Teens Snack Smarter

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Teens are grazing machines, albeit not very efficient ones. Their standard snack choices of chips, candy bars and sodas don't deliver the protein and macronutrients that growing bodies need throughout the day.

It's a tricky issue for parents to address, though. A young adult with car privileges or access to vending machines can trump attempts at more mindful eating.

If one were to perform an intervention, what would that entail? Just how important is snacking for teenagers, anyway?

"Very," says Carol Forman Helerstein, a Long Island, N.Y., nutritionist with 25 years' experience who consults for Chefs Diet, a meal preparation and delivery service. "You don't want blood-sugar or brain-chemistry levels to drop, especially for kids involved in athletics after school."

Helerstein says it helps to think of snacks as "mini meals" that cover the basics: protein to help stabilize blood sugar, good carbohydrates to provide energy, and good fats to boost metabolism and brain function. No recipe required: "a slice of turkey breast and half an apple would do it," she says.

Here are some strategies to help teens snack smarter. Many of them begin with fine-tuning the pantry:

- Keep it natural. Fruit, vegetables and even good fats (olive, canola and safflower oils; omega-3 fatty acids found in avocados, fish, healthy margarine and nuts; and stearic acid, found in dark chocolate; not saturated fats or trans fats) can slow down the intake of sugar in the bloodstream. That is beneficial for balanced brain chemistry, Helerstein says.

- Keep it in check. Whole-grain chips and organic cheese puffs are okay occasionally; individually sized bags will help with portion control.

- Cut out the late-night bowl of sugary cereal. An 11 p.m. snack of frosted wheat might not sound like a poor choice, but Helerstein says the habit can cause spikes in blood-sugar levels at bedtime that may affect brain activity and sleep patterns many years later. Unadorned shredded wheat would be a better choice. In general, she advises not eating for two hours before head hits pillow.

- Reduce or eliminate caffeinated and/or carbonated soft drinks. The phosphoric acid and caffeine in sodas may deplete calcium in growing bones. Try juices fortified with calcium and mixed with seltzers. (And remember calcium-friendly milk.)

- Trade up or improve on prepackaged foods. Keep on hand homemade or store-bought pizza doughs made with whole-wheat flour; buy whole-wheat pitas; make sure store-bought tomato sauces are all-natural and pizza cheeses are low-fat.

- Variety is the spice of . . . proteins. Think finger food, in small amounts: tofu, shrimp, chicken, a piece of roast beef. Or use protein powder.

- Replace regular mayonnaise. A tablespoon can contain 90 calories, so look for substitutes where you can. Try soy or tofu mayos; use low-fat yogurt instead of mayonnaise in tuna and egg salads.

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