Embarrassing. Self-conscious. Irrational. Dramatic. Full of rage. Ask anyone: this is what it feels like to cross that threshold from childhood to puberty. And it sucks.
Tweens and teens have it really, really rough. Surging hormones take hold, which can bring on everything from extreme moodiness to insane sugar cravings to skin problems. Then, when that first zit crops up, it might feel like the apocalypse—and for some very unlucky teens, the breakouts don’t stop for many years to come. No wonder kids this age can’t stop screaming, “It’s not fair!”
If they’re spending more and more time away from home, where dietary habits easily get sabotaged by limited access to healthy options (and even peer pressure to eat junk), that only makes things harder. Parents, now’s your cue to teach your budding adolescent one of life’s most crucial lessons—a healthy diet can actually get them through this. Here’s what to feed your tween or teen to keep them acne-free, hormonally balanced, and happy.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Take two of the most tragic scenarios in a hormonal teenager’s world—angst and acne—and fight them with omega-3s. These good-for-you fatty acids are known to boost mood and help ward off symptoms of depression. Studies have even shown they can lessen breakouts by regulating sebum production (a cause of acne), too—and improve mental well-being as a result.
Make sure your kid gets plenty of omega-3s from these sources:
Vegetarian- and vegan-friendly sources
- Walnut oil
- Pistachio oil
- Macadamia nut oil
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
Zinc is another magical nutrient that acts as a double-whammy to fight both emotional and epidermal eruptions. It can help balance hormones, and studies show it may diminish feelings of anger, hostility, and depression. And thanks to zinc’s role in transporting vitamin A in the blood, which speeds up skin cell growth, it’s powerful enough to help banish breakouts.
Try these zinc-rich foods:
Meat and dairy sources
There’s a definite connection between the gut and brain—90 percent of serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked to maintaining mood balance, is produced in the gut. Researchers have found that fermented foods can help curb social anxiety, thanks to the probiotics’ positive effect on gut bacteria, and even minimize symptoms of depression.
According to functional medical practitioner Chris Kresser, improving your gut health can ease inflammation, which North Carolina–based dermatologist Dr. Rosalyn George says is the root cause of acne.
These fermented foods are your best bet:
Getting enough iron is especially important for girls who’ve started menstruating (heavy bleeding can deplete it). The recommended daily allowance nearly doubles from age 13 to 14—the RDA for girls ages 9 to 13 is 8 milligrams; for ages 14 to 18, it jumps to 15 milligrams.
Iron is most easily absorbed from animal sources like:
But it can come from plant-based foods, too (just pair them with foods high in vitamin C to help with absorption):
- Leafy green vegetables
- Whole grains
Foods to avoid
As much as your kids might love sugar, dairy, and gluten, it’s a good idea to educate them that all three could potentially trigger inflammation, irritation, and acne. Girls in particular may struggle to avoid sugar, as their rising estrogen levels can make sweets seem even more irresistible than usual. You can help by limiting added sugar at home, since they’ll likely be getting more than enough at school. Instead of packaged pastries and flavored yogurt, stock up on healthy snacks like homemade trail mix and fresh berries.
Remember, too, that this sometimes difficult life stage once happened to you, and try to stay empathetic. In a few years those tumultuous teen years will be over—and your kids will be better off after learning how to eat right.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho and Paul Delmont