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Eating habits in young people

How is our physical state tied to the food we consume, and how does the statement “you are what you eat” relate to young people?
Young boy eating burger

Our physical state is tied to the food we consume, as with the statement “you are what you eat”. Research consistently suggests that a balanced diet is essential to maintaining physical health and mental wellbeing.

The difficulty of maintaining balanced diets

However, for many of us, following a balanced diet can be difficult to maintain at the best of times. The adolescent body requires a balance of nutrients, vitamins and a lot of hydration for optimal physical and mental health.

For some young people, however, sugary snack foods such as biscuits, chocolates, sweets and foods high in fat like pizza, are a staple part of their diets.

Emotional eating

Emotional eating refers to the tendency for an individual to resort to eating to distract themselves or to offset feelings of anxiety, stress, sadness and loneliness.

This tendency is developed through learned associations, as shown in this example case study:

Conrad has just seen his ex-girlfriend on Snapchat with her new love interest. To feel better about himself, Conrad contacts a few friends to meet. However, his friends are busy and aren’t able to meet up with him. Feeling bored and lonely, Conrad decides to treat himself to an XL Dominoes stuff crust pepperoni pizza. He also heads downstairs to grab a few snacks to eat during the wait for his food delivery. After eating the snacks and his XL pizza, Conrad begins to feel bad about himself and decides to vomit. This has become a frequent pattern of behaviour for Conrad when he is feeling stressed.

Crash dieting, calorie-restrictive diets and skipping meals

Young people, like many mature adults, often skip meals or follow a calorie-restrictive diet to get into shape or to stay healthy. Such practices are problematic and can lead to adverse health concerns. Read Samson’s story:
Samson has gained some weight over the summer holiday, school is due to reopen and Samson can see the changes in his body. Concerned about the response of his friends, Samson decides to follow the fitness regime of an influencer on instagram. Frustrated by the slow weight loss and the clear difference between his body and that of the influencer he idolises. Samson decided that he would follow a calories restrictive diet (700kcal) for 3-days of the week and intermittent fasting for the remaining days.

How to help

A young person may not fully comprehend the eating habits that they have formed nor the adverse health effects.
Therefore, it may be useful to give the young person scenarios that they may be able to identify themselves within, and then discuss how they have come to develop those patterns.
The stories above provide an example of how stress and anxiety can lead to unhealthy eating habits and emotional eating.
It will be unlikely that you will be able to assist the young person to unlearn their eating habits through one conversation, but it will serve as an opportunity to help the young person reflect on their eating habits.
You’ll find further case study stories in the download section of this step.

Conversation Kickoff

  • Do other people in your family use food to soothe their feelings too?
  • When you are feeling down, do you use food to make yourself feel better?
  • Have you eaten breakfast today?
  • When you are feeling anxious about something are there certain foods you will eat to make yourself feel better?
  • Do you snack and if so, what is your choice of snack?

PEP POINTS TASK suggestions

Work with the young person to figure out which small steps they could take to develop healthy eating habits.
  • Cooking for themselves or with parents.
  • Developing a balanced diet with planned snacks/cheat days.
  • Following a recipe on the NHS Eatwell Guide.
  • Tracking nutritional intake with Under Armour’s MyFitnessPal (free).
  • Snack substitutes.

If you’d like to learn more about youth mental health, check out the full online course, from The Mental Health Foundation, below.

This article is from the free online

Youth Mental Health: Supporting Young People Using a Trauma Informed Practice

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FutureLearn - Learning For Life

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