Last newsletter I promised that I’d begin this term by addressing two topics which bother me. The first, which was sleep, was probably relatively uncontroversial. This week’s however, may be more challenging, because this week I want to address the issue of nutrition – and specifically nutrition and teenage boys.
My concern about this has grown out of a number of conversations I’ve had with parents and with fellow Heads in which it has become clear that a number of boys are undertaking intense diets in order to improve their physique. These diets are not necessarily ‘unhealthy’ – in fact many of them are based on the diets of professional sportsmen and body-builders. However, these diet have been designed for adult athletes under the supervision of a coach, not for adolescent bodies; and experts continually report that when employed by teenagers, as opposed to adults, body-changing diets can be harmful.
Typically, the diets which boys are interested in are high-protein diets, often involving whey-powder supplements and increasing amounts of gym. These are the diets that promise to build muscle, and replace fat – to build ‘six-pack abs, broad shoulders, bulging biceps and a slender waist’, features that (as a recent ABC report put it) boys think are ‘going to burn away the fat and produce muscle overnight’.
These diets are ‘sold’ via some extremely subtle, and convincing messaging – typically via the internet. However, as Sports Medicine Australia, Queensland Branch President, Julie Gilbert says:
"We know high protein diets do run the risk of finding more calcium in our urine, which does affect our bone mass. We also know high-protein diets can have an effect on our kidneys, so I don't think they are things we want to muck around with our teenagers who are still growing and developing."
In other words, our boys’ bodies are not ready for these diets, and these diets will be creating future, serious health problems for a number of our boys. In addition to that, these diets are often exhausting which can have devastating effects for teens.
In simple terms, the teenage years are tiring enough anyway. The body and brain are growing at exponential rates, and the biology of this growth demands high energy input – that is, a lot of food. That’s why so many teenage boys are fridge-hoovers. The diets that attract our boys invariably remove calories, and (typically) they remove carbs – the core energy-giver! They then frequently insist on extra gym work – that is, they insist on the boys expending even more energy.
The exhaustion and fatigue this produces is deep. Its effects mirror many of the symptoms of depressive illnesses; and the effect on school-work, mood and relationships can be lasting. Indeed, for one boy at a neighbouring school, it led to such an inability to engage, that the boy eventually had to drop out of school.
This is tragic, and wholly avoidable. Teenagers face more than enough pressures without us, as adults, allowing them to add another. So what can we do? Well, here at school, we will continue to review the way we address these issues, and our new Foundation Studies course will provide us with the platform to improve our teaching in this area.
However, this has to be tackled in partnership with parents and although I recognise that schools cannot dictate what happens at home, I’m wondering if I can ask parents to do two things: firstly, provide, promote and model eating which balances all the food-types, including what a recent Irish Government site called the ‘white foods’ – the currently unfashionable carbs such as potatoes, rice, pasta and bread (of course, they don’t need to be ‘white’ – brown, as in whole-grain, is even better!)
And secondly, if possible, it would be great if parents could eat with their older children? I’m not guaranteeing the most stimulating conversation, but enjoying food together around a shared table can have a huge number of beneficial effects (for all children, not just teen boys) and one of those – one crucial one of those – is that it enables parents to keep an almost invisible eye on their children’s’ eating. It may not be fashionable to promote a balanced-diet and family meals, but I feel it is essential if we are to give our children the very best chance of growing up into healthy, whole, successful adults.