As the Paleo diet grows in popularity, it’s reaching a younger audience, and for good reasons! Many of the health conditions that teenagers struggle with such as acne, obesity, diabetes, and autoimmune disease can benefit greatly from eating Paleo.
But is Paleo for teens a safe diet? The short answer is, yes—it sure can be! The longer answer is that it depends on the foods that are being consumed on the individuals’ Paleo diet.
Importance of Diet in the Teen Years
Adolescence is defined as the transition between childhood and adulthood (ages 10 – 19), and is a time of robust growth and development. As teens grow taller, their growth in height is accompanied by increases in body weight and marked changes in body composition. Boys tend to gain more lean mass than girls, who experience a greater increase of adipose (fat) tissue which is essential for normal menstruation. (1)
An important event to note during these years is that approximately half of our adult bone mass is obtained during adolescence, with up to 90 percent of peak bone mass being acquired by age 18 in girls, and age 20 in boys. (2) That means during the teen years, it’s really important to stay active, lift weights, and get adequate amounts of vitamin D, calcium, and other trace minerals needed to build up enough bone mass to last through adulthood.
Accompanying this physical growth is the maturation of reproductive function that characterizes the teen years. Girls start experiencing menstruation, while boys develop facial hair and undergo other body changes. Anyone who has ever raised a teenager knows that the raging hormones during this time of life are potent (to say the least)!
Considering the massive growth that occurs during adolescence, it’s critical that teens receive good nutrition to support these intense developmental changes. A healthy diet throughout the teen years is essential to provide nutrients that are required for optimal physical growth as well as cognitive development. Unfortunately, many adolescents aren’t getting the daily recommended amount of vitamins and minerals from their diets, which can have lasting adverse effects into adulthood.
Nutrient needs are higher during adolescence compared to any other stage of life and consequently, ensuring good nutrition during this time period can do wonders for staving off a plethora of problems and illnesses later in life. (3) Sadly, many teens don’t recognize the importance of diet and exercise during these formative years. This was my story. I ate a terrible diet while I was growing up, and while some might argue that my current autoimmune and hormonal diseases are not related to my childhood diet, I am quite confident that eating a vegetarian/vegan diet throughout my adolescent years (devoid of essential fats and proteins) is largely to blame for the early onset of my chronic illnesses.
Teens, Carbs, & Calories
Similar to when a woman is pregnant, the increased energy demands and rapid growth that occurs during the teen years demands more nutrients and calories. For teens playing sports or who are otherwise living an active lifestyle, carbohydrates and calories become even more important. More often than not, a low-carb or low-calorie approach to a Paleo diet during adolescence should be avoided. Having faster metabolisms means that teens are at a greater liberty to eat carbohydrates, but the tricky part is getting these young adults to understand that all carbs are not created equal.
As a vegetarian child, I ate a lot of inflammatory carbohydrate foods such as grains, breads, beans, pizza, crackers, chips, popcorn, and other processed foods. These foods can readily contribute to autoimmune disease, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases. This may explain why I was diagnosed with (and devastated by) multiple autoimmune diseases while I was still in my 20s. Considering the numerous disease states that have been linked to carbohydrate consumption, the importance of carbohydrate quality cannot be ignored.
For example, autoimmune diseases (when considered collectively) are the most prevalent diseases in the U.S., and most people struggling with autoimmunity respond very well to eliminating all grains and legumes from their diets. Previously known as “adult onset diabetes,” Type 2 diabetes is now one of the most common diseases in school-aged children. (4) It has been established that diabetes is a disease of carbohydrate intolerance, which is caused by consuming too many of the wrong types of carbohydrates. (5)
To make matters worse, more than 20 percent of American teenagers are overweight or obese, which increases their chances of developing type 2 diabetes. (6) Likewise, the majority of people (including children) with type 2 diabetes are also overweight. (7) Not only is obesity shortening life expectancy, but as a result (for the first time in over two centuries), the current generation of children in America are not expected to outlive their parents! This shorter life expectancy of U.S. citizens in the 21st century has been attributed solely to obesity. (8)
While adults who are working to lose weight and lower their blood glucose levels should be mindful about the amount of fruit and starches they consume, these foods are an important part of a growing teenagers diet. The Paleo diet does allow for the consumption of carbohydrate-rich foods such as fruits and starchy root vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes. In most cases, these foods should be included in the adolescent diet, especially if the teen is physically active. While some experts say that restricting carbohydrates during this period can be detrimental for growth and hormonal development, other studies suggest that short-term low-carb diets may be helpful to kickstart weight loss for obese teens. (9)
Moreover, most teens who are looking to clear up acne, lose weight, stave off autoimmunity, or lower their blood sugar shouldn’t need to restrict their carbohydrate or calorie intake. These teens can reach their desired results simply by following a Paleo diet that includes Paleo-friendly carb sources, and by staying active.
Teenage Nutrient Needs & Recommendations
In sum, eating a balanced variety of Paleo foods provides the nutrients and calories that growing teens need to:
- Reach their optimal weight/height
- Keep inflammation levels low in their bodies to prevent the onset of chronic diseases
- Maintain healthy blood glucose levels
- Support physical activity and athletic performance
- Support the production of healthy hormone levels
- Provide the vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients needed to fuel growth during these formative years
Teens who are thinking about going Paleo should keep in mind:
- A low carb diet is not ideal for growing teens and can lead to problems down the road. Be sure to include potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, fruits, and other starchy foods in your diet (especially if you are active).
- Teen athletes need more calories and carbohydrates to fuel their activities and optimize performance compared to more sedentary teens. Active teens who don’t get enough nutrition can do lasting damage to their bodies, so it’s important to fuel up before, after, (and sometimes during) exercise.
- If you want to eat Paleo to lose weight, diet is only half of the equation! Be sure you are getting ample amounts of exercise every day, which will help you to manage your appetite and lose weight at a healthy rate. Keep in mind that the teen years are a time of drastic change and growth, and your height may just need some time to catch up to your weight…so be patient, but consistent!
- Eat a variety of Paleo foods, and try your best to not get stuck in a rut! Any diet can become unhealthy when the same foods are consumed over and over again. For example, eating only chicken and spinach doesn’t make your diet Paleo, and it’s not healthy either!
Paleo foods to focus on during the teen years include:
Grass-fed/pastured/wild-caught animal meats and their fats (i.e. lard, tallow, etc.), avocados, eggs, extra virgin avocado and olive oils, extra virgin organic coconut oil, pastured butter or ghee, and wild seafood. It’s important to include healthy fats in the diet to support hormone production and reproductive development.
Grass-fed beef and other red meats, pastured poultry, wild seafood, high quality eggs, moderate amounts of nuts/seeds and their butters. Be sure to include protein at most meals, especially protein from pastured/grass-fed/wild animals. Eating protein or fat with your carbohydrates also slows the delivery of glucose to your bloodstream and can help to prevent blood sugar disorders.
Vegetables and Fruits
Organic produce is best! Eating a wide variety of vegetables and fruits is important to get all of the nutrients needed for growth. Rotate different veggies and fruits throughout your diet, and try not to consume the same plant foods over and over again. The most nutrient-dense vegetables are dark, leafy greens like kale, chard, and collard greens. Most teens will also benefit from including fruits and starchy foods in their Paleo diet, as mentioned above.
Dairy and Calcium
Teens following a Paleo diet that excludes dairy should include sources of calcium in their diet. It’s easy to get enough calcium on the Paleo diet sans dairy, and as it turns out, the calcium contained in many Paleo foods is much more absorbable than the calcium found in dairy products! To meet calcium needs, be sure to include dark leafy greens (i.e. kale, chard, collard greens, etc.) and bones (i.e. sardines with bones, small soft fish bones, soft ends of soup bones, etc.). Nuts, seeds, and other vegetables also contain calcium to a lesser extent.
Whether or not dairy should be consumed is a highly individual matter. Pastured/grass-fed dairy can be an excellent source of fats and protein. For those teens who don’t have any obvious signs of intolerance, dairy can be a healthy addition to a Paleo/Primal diet. A Primal diet is basically a Paleo diet that includes high quality dairy products.
Going Paleo in High School
Let’s face it: it can be a challenge to eat Paleo when you’re going at it alone. Social pressure and “food pushers” (you know, those people that try to get you to “ease up” and just have “one bite”) can definitely make it tough to stick to your diet. I’m always impressed by people eating Paleo despite peer pressure, especially when they are still in high school!
I’m so excited to interview Miss Seriana Ordello today, a 17 year old from my neck of the woods (Pacific Northwest) who’s been eating Paleo on her own since she was 15! She’s got some great tips for flying solo on Paleo and how to eat Paleo without it destroying your social life. So without further adieu, meet Seri!
Interview with a Paleo Teen
Kinsey: Hi Seri! Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, and how/why you decided to start eating Paleo? Does your family eat Paleo with you?
Seri: I started going gluten-free about three years ago because of digestion problems and because my mom was doing it. I loved it and heard about Paleo shortly thereafter. I put it off for a while because it seemed extreme and I’m an athlete who craves carbs after a workout. When I decided to go Paleo, I wondered why I hadn’t done it earlier. I felt so good, not as tired and the acne on my face actually cleared up a lot, too.
Kinsey: What are your biggest challenges in eating Paleo?
Seri: I would say the hardest part is other people. I’m always having to pack meals to go and trying to look online for menus when going out with friends. Also the pressure from others can be tough, I always hear “it’s only this one time” or “there’s like, one tablespoon of flour in the whole pot of soup though!” It’s hard for other people to understand why I stick so tight to Paleo or at least gluten-free.
Kinsey: Why do you continue to eat Paleo despite these challenges?
Seri: It has always been worth it. I know when I wake up tomorrow, I’ll be proud of myself for sticking to my guns and eating some carrots instead of that donut. I feel better and I really don’t miss gluten all that much anyway. I think I eat healthier than I would if I wasn’t Paleo. All my friends eat fast food and donuts, but I stick to veggies and fruit as my treats.
Kinsey: I’ve gotta give you some major props for being able to navigate social situations and still stick to your diet! Can you give our readers some quick tips on how you handle the following situations?
Explaining your diet to your friends and nay sayers
Seri: I eat the way I do because I like it and it makes me feel good. When people try to convince me why Paleo is “bad” or “wrong” I listen to them and thank them for the information. Everyone has an opinion and many like to share it. I love to tell people about being Paleo! I also feel that other diets/lifestyles are followed for a reason, if people preach veganism, awesome, I’m not going to ever be vegan but that’s their thing and good for them for sticking to what they believe in.
Eating at friends’ houses (who aren’t into health food)
Seri: If you know you’re going to a friend’s house, bring your own food or let them know your restrictions and what you can eat, not just what you can’t. I often make food beforehand…something I know that I’ll enjoy and something filling. I love to make chicken or sauteed veggies and pack it up for dinner or even a snack.
Also, know what you can eat and warn friends about your food needs. Usually people need a guide if they are planning to cook for you. It’s easier to look for things in the grocery store when they know what to look for instead of what not to look for.
My friends and I love to have cooking parties. We all go to the store together and each of us buys a few ingredients and then we cook a meal together that we can all enjoy at someone’s house. At the end we have a great meal and we all feel proud of our cooking skills!
Eating out with friends
Seri: When eating out with friends, have places you know work for you. I know a lot of local places that I can go out with friends. Burger places are great because you don’t have to get a bun. If you warn servers of food restrictions, they can usually help with the menu. Substitute when you can, the cook may hate you but it’s worth skipping a tummy ache! Italian places are usually pretty good and I often order sauteed veggies in olive oil instead of bread or noodles on the side, and have meat with simple toppings as the main course. Get creative with the menu or stick to simple things like salad without croutons or meat with no seasoning then add salt and pepper. Study the menus at local restaurants and map our your ‘go to’ places when meeting with friends so you can all enjoy a meal and no one has to worry.
Eating at school
Seri: Pack lunches that are filling and yummy so you’re not tempted to eat other people’s food. Maybe add a treat every now and then. I love packing my lunch in mason jars because they are so cute and a good serving size. Check out Pinterest for good ideas on mason jar lunches or snacks.
Eating at home when your family doesn’t eat Paleo
Seri: Well….there’s some lonely dinners. My family is gluten-free so actually a lot of dinners I can eat, but sometimes I’m stuck cooking for myself. You can’t be lazy very often when you’re Paleo. You also can’t quit. Make a list of foods you need to make your meals so your parents don’t leave you out and you’re stuck with no ingredients.
Kinsey: Any other words of wisdom you’d like to share Seri? What are your future plans/goals?
Seri: You don’t have to be 100 percent Paleo to be successful, you can cheat every once in awhile. Cheating can actually help your immune system so it doesn’t completely forget what some foods are. I find that I have to eat non-Paleo foods sometimes to keep from getting really sick if I haven’t had a certain food for a long period of time. I always stick to cheating gluten-free though. I plan on continuing my Paleo journey the rest of my life and helping others to join me in this great lifestyle.
Kinsey: Seri, thank you so much for sharing your experience with us! It’s really inspiring to hear from an active and athletic teen who is thriving on Paleo. We really appreciate your wisdom and all of your super helpful advice! Rock on, Paleo girl!