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Puberty nutrition is a thing! Most of us know that strong nutrition is key during pregnancy and the first 1000 days of a child’s life, but did you know that nutrition has just as big an impact during puberty? Here are key puberty nutrition tips to help kids feel well, grow as expected, and thrive with good energy and better mood during those potentially bumpy years.

Puberty presents an explosive growth spurt for children. In terms of per pound demands for macronutrients, it’s on par with the growth spurts experienced in infancy and toddlerhood – with one major difference: Parents aren’t in charge of all the meals anymore. Pre-teens and teens eat away from home often, often eating who knows what. If kids are busy with athletic pursuits, those macro demands go even higher, making puberty nutrition very important. Not only does puberty make kids a lot bigger (often quite fast!), it brings shifts in brain structure and function, along with  acquisition of all our reproductive capacities, for both boys and girls.

In my pediatric nutrition practice, a common finding I encounter for teens and pre-teens is that they actually don’t eat enough. Obesity is undoubtedly a big problem for US children, but I meet many who are not growing, gaining, or thriving. A typical scenario is an over-busy kid who doesn’t get time to eat enough. School lunch periods are too short, transitions are too short between school and activities, and activities are often high octane athletic pursuits that burn calories like a forest fire. Throw some food fear in the mix from parents with good intentions who over-restrict carbs. Result? These kids don’t grow, don’t feel great, have more anxiety, and are more stressed out. Meanwhile, other kids are battling overweight or obesity, profound school or social stressors, or a chronic condition that is fatiguing. Food and nutrition can help!

Puberty Nutrition Tips Number 1: Here’s Puberty Nutrition Tip Numero Uno: Give your teens and pre-teens plenty of clean calories, from all macros – carbs, protein, and fats/oils – but save processed sweets and refined sugars for special occasions.

  • Make it good stuff – that is, organic, non-GMO, low or no added sugars. Higher processed sugar intake is associated with earlier age of menarche.
  • For snacks and sack lunches, use high nutrient density options like single serve cups of smashed avocado, guacamole, or hummus, with a favorite chip, pita, or hearty bread; fresh fruit, trail mix, or no-added-sugar protein bars with 8 grams or more protein per bar; or vegetable sushi packs. Yogurt tubes and cups? I’m not a fan, as these usually contain a lot of sugar and are more dessert than real food. Make or buy some real food cookies or bars instead – these can deliver more nutrients and fiber, with less sugar. Peruse my recipe blog for options like Double Chocolate Chip Cookies, Tigernut Flour Oatmeal Cookies, or Sesame Tahini Millionaire Bars. All are grain free, nut free, and use only honey or maple syrup as sweeteners.
  • Pack more, especially for busy outdoorsy kids and athletes. If sandwiches are a hit, pack one and a half, rather than just one.
  • If your kids like protein boost drinks, skirt the added cane sugar or corn syrup options like Orgain, Boost, or Pediasure. Products like Kiki Milk, Rebbl Protein Drinks, Remedy Organics, or Owyn Plant Based Protein Shake are among many out there that eliminate dairy, GMO soy, and cane sugar or corn syrup. Look for 10 grams of protein or more per serving. If dairy works for your child, plain old milk is perfectly workable, if you can skip the sugary chocolate version.
  • Check out grain free soft tortillas to make your own taquitos -stuff with your kids’ favorites. I love this version of pesto that is protein packed, lots of healthy fats, and nut free (pumpkin seeds replace the walnuts in this recipe).
  • Skip drinks sweetened with aspartame, which is associated with obesity. No added sugar fruit juice is a healthier choice, as is whole fresh fruit, or sparkling water.
  • Minerals rule: These are easy to miss in diets high in processed foods like pizza, yogurt, fries…. But, symptoms like acne, irritability, difficulty focusing, or fatigue can relate to levels of zinc, copper, iron, or magnesium. If your kids don’t eat lots of fresh veggies, nuts and seeds, or meats, they may need mineral support. Acne can also relate to gut dysbiosis, which can be addressed with herbal and probiotic supports.

Puberty Nutrition Tips Number 2 – Support a steady, healthy growth and gain pattern. In my pediatric nutrition practice, I often see that my clients’ pediatricians aren’t much interested in growth patterns. They may dutifully record a dot on a chart, or not – you’d be surprised how many blank growth charts I’ve received! And, pediatricians generally don’t interpret what the overall trend is showing. They don’t have the time or training to do so, quite frankly. I routinely meet kids whose growth patterns are impaired. They are either underweight or skewing toward overweight, and no one explores why. These shifts can happen for a variety of reasons. The more entrenched these trends become, the more health risk for your child.

  • Support your child’s growth pattern so that their body mass index (BMI) travels within the 20th-80th percentiles. Obesity is linked to earlier onset puberty and earlier start of menarche in girls. For boys, being overweight or being obese also impacts onset of puberty, with most data showing it triggers earlier onset. Overweight means your child’s BMI is between the 85th and 95th percentiles. Obese means it is above the 95th percentile.
  • If your child’s total food intake is skewed heavy into protein and fat macros, while reducing carbs, they may not grow very well. High protein, low carb diets are associated with stunting in children.  This can also engender fatigue, shifts in bone mineralization, and changes in mood or focus/attention. I have encountered these exact scenarios often in my pediatric nutrition practice. Food is the fix. Starches and carbs from wholesome, organic sources should make up at least half your busy teen’s or tween’s total intake. Think starchy veggies like legumes, green beans, lima beans, potatoes with skin, sweet potato, squashes, fresh fruits, and whatever whole grains your kids tolerate safely.

Puberty Nutrition Tips Number 3 – Expect comfortable periods for your daughters. Menstrual symptoms run the gamut from crippling pain, cramping, clotting, exceedingly heavy flow, long periods, headaches or migraines, or myriad gut symptoms. When these are excessive or persistent, think puberty nutrition. There are many moving parts here, when it comes to how nutrition can help our daughters’ bodies transition into tolerable, manageable menses. Menstrual periods don’t have to be incapacitating. There are many puberty-nutrition possibilities for more comfort, less pain.

  • Heavy periods and/or thick clots of blood can signal anything from hormonal imbalance (thyroid, low progesterone, estrogen dominance) to endometriosis, fibroids, or miscarriage. Check with your pediatric gynecologist for an exam and blood work that can identify hormone imbalances.
  • From the nutrition end, poor iron status can cause heavier periods. This can happen even when girls are marginal for iron, before they become anemic. Ask your doctor for a full iron study, that includes serum iron, ferritin, transferrin, saturation, and a complete blood count. For more on testing and replenishing iron, click here.
  • Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts contain a helpful compound call di-indolylmethane (DIM) which can help detoxify estrogens and reduce estrogen dominance. A lot of vegetable servings are needed to reach therapeutic dosing, but eating these foods is supportive of a healthy cycle and flow. You can also buy DIM supplements on my FullScript platform here.
  • Cramps and migraines may be eased with magnesium. We need a lot of magnesium, and it’s easy to miss it in regular diets. Magnesium glycinate capsules or liquid to about 300 mg for a school aged child or teen is a safe dose. You can also use topical magnesium lotions. Magnesium citrate will have a stronger laxative effect, which may be useful for some kids. Peruse these options at Fullscript, where multiple reputable bands and forms are available.
  • Menstrual symptoms are associated with depleted levels of vitamin D and calcium. Maintain your child’s vitamin D level at a healthy range. In my pediatric nutrition practice, I look for robust serum levels in the 60-80 range, which is well above the 30 ng/dL cut off widely suggested. Vitamin D drops and small gel caps are widely available. Calcium and vitamin D are closely intertwined in our metabolism. Supplementing as little as 500 mg calcium daily showed significant improvement in mood, anxiety, and water retention in this clinical trial.
  • Antioxidant foods and supplements like turmeric root, vitamin C, and berries reduce inflammation in the body, which can skew estrogen out of balance and drive more painful symptoms. Use these liberally to support easier periods.
  • Omega 3 fatty acids can reduce prostaglandins, which surge when the endometrial lining of the uterus is shed at the onset of a flow. Prostaglandins have a purpose: They trigger inflammation and constrict blood vessels, to prevent excessive blood loss. But too much of them can cause cramping, pain, nausea, migraines, or even fainting. Omega 3 fatty acids favor the anti-inflammatory prostaglandin PGE1. Using high doses of omega 3 fatty acids can ease cramping, migraines, and other menstrual symptoms. Omega 3 fatty acids can also help balance progesterone to estrogen, for fewer symptoms. In my pediatric nutrition practice, I recommend at least 1000 mg of omega 3 fatty acids daily, and often go higher, for therapeutic effect. This can mean large pills some can’t swallow. Look for Barleans High Potency Key Lime Fish Oil, and take 1-2 Tablespoons/day (also available in my FullScript platform, or better markets that sell supplements). Meanwhile, reduce omega 6 fatty acids from these oils: Canola, sunflower, safflower, grapeseed, corn oil, soybean oil, or peanut oil. Better choices to help this balance are coconut oil, olive oil, ghee, or grass fed butter.
  • There are many herbal tools for hormonal balance and nutrient replenishment. One of my favorites for incapacitating heavy flow is Slow Flow from Vitanica (also available in FullScript). For expertise in female hormonal health and using herbal supports for healthier, happier menses, contact my colleague Tasmin Cordie DC at Sage Nutrition.

Puberty nutrition is a topic unto itself! If your providers aren’t sure about how to help with puberty nutrition details, contact me here to work with me one on one.