Youth Nutrition Education with the COPS Program
Recently I had the good fortune to present a youth nutrition education program to an amazing group of young people through the Prince George’s County Police Department’s COPS District VI Youth Enrichment Program. The program is designed to give middle school-aged kids a safe environment while providing educational enrichment and fostering relationships between law enforcement officers and youth.
This is the intersection of so many of my passions: community, nutrition, healthy habits, children & adolescents, teaching, hands-on engagement, and food tastings for kids. Add to this an environment of fun, mutual respect, and the true inquisitiveness of this group, and it doesn’t get much better than this for me!
An Age of Urgency
One of the most important talking points when it comes to adolescent health is to address urgency. It’s hard for many adults to make positive changes NOW, with the promise of seeing results later, and kids are no different. My strategy involves not only telling adolescents that what they eat now will determine whether they are sick or healthy adults, but giving them the science behind WHY.
Kids are smart, flexible, and usually very practical. Rather than telling them what to do and expecting them to comply, I believe instead in giving them all of the information they need to make wise decisions.
It’s the difference between saying, “Processed food is bad for you – you shouldn’t eat it,” and giving them the facts as to why whole foods are more nourishing to us. Typically, kids are wise when it comes to their bodies and a little nutrition education can go a long way.
Nutrition & Healthy Development
Adolescents are growing at exponential rates. In fact, nutritional demands are the second-highest in our whole lifetime during this period, with the exception of infancy. Let me say that again:
Other than adolescence, the only time in our lives when our bodies demand more nutrients for growth and development is when we are infants.
Half of our adult bone mass is gained during this period. A large percentage of both lean body mass (muscle) and fat mass (vital for female reproductive health) is also set during adolescence. Additionally, growth and brain development demand extra nutrients above and beyond the energy needed for daily activity. And perhaps most importantly, lifelong habits are heavily influenced during adolescence.
Why Calories Are NOT the Answer
You can find 100 calories in 9 Lay’s potato chips or in 23 baby carrots, but surely we recognize that the nutritional quality of these calories is very different. Calories represent energy, not vitamins, minerals, fiber, fats, protein, or anything else that the body requires to function properly. Whole foods are where the nutrients live, not processed foods.
By simply talking to teens about the value of whole foods, sharing simple (quick) snacks made from real ingredients, and teaching them some simple signs that they are lacking vital nutrients, we can influence adolescents to make healthier food decisions. I was thrilled to hear this group of young people mention growth, fatigue and mood as indicators of poor nutrition (smart teens!!), but having them also consider the health of their hair, skin and nails can give them clues to focus more closely on dietary choices.
Practice, Not Perfection
No one is perfect. A “perfect” diet is never the goal for adults, teens or kids, since it’s not sustainable. Instead, jumping on board with healthy behavior and fostering a willingness to try new things can reinforce lifelong eating practices for adolescents. Inviting them into the kitchen to create and experiment builds life skills and helps to create a positive relationship with food. Perhaps most importantly, instilling the value of quality when it comes to food choices can save many teens from going down a road of calorie-counting, body dysmorphia and self-judgment. Let’s help our next generation reshape the way we think about food and health; give them the facts, give them room to explore and create, and watch them thrive!