Anxious or Hungry?

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Jennifer is curled up on my office couch, sobbing. It’s only the second week of school and already this ‘type A’ high school junior is a mess. She whispers a long list of worries– stomach aches, headaches, boyfriend issues, fights with her mom, difficulty sleeping, feeling weak and exhausted in class. Oh, the anxious life of today’s teenager!

Much of the stress felt by teens is a very real and rational response to their overly scheduled, competitive lives. While some can handle their long, busy days, other kids are overwhelmed. In my nutrition therapy practice, I see many adolescents whose anxiety manifests itself in unbalanced eating patterns and unhealthy levels of exercise.

What many teenagers and parents don’t realize is that the poor nutrition can exacerbate anxiety symptoms. Often, simple dietary changes can quickly help overwhelmed teens feel calmer, happier, and more focused.

The key is to understand that both anxiety and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar due to lack of food) feel remarkably similar to the body.

Both situations cause the adrenal glands to pump out adrenalin.

This adrenalin surge can cause mood changes, headaches, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, rapid heart rate, sweating, trembling, dizziness, and light-headedness.

Dashing out the door in the morning without eating breakfast may cause anxiety symptoms. But the solution may simply be some morning fuel to normalize blood sugar levels.

On a purely practical level, stressed and worried teens need all the nutritional help they can get. Here are a few of my favorite tips to help stabilize blood sugar in order to minimize the stress roller coaster:

  • Protein and fats take longer to digest than carbohydrates so fuel for a busy morning by eating a quick balanced breakfast containing all three macronutrients. Examples are Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and chopped walnuts; or whole-wheat waffles spread with nut butter and topped with slices of apple or banana; or eggs, veggies, and cheese stuffed into a whole-wheat wrap. Avoid eating only simple carbs such as puffed cereals, toast with jam, or a granola bar – these will surely cause a mid-morning blood sugar crash that leaves your teen jittery.

  • On a really crazy morning, grab a protein-packed Zing bar with a glass of milk and a piece of fruit – it will work perfectly to keep blood sugar levels steady leading to a happier, calmer, and more focused morning.

  • Watch out for caffeine overload. Caffeine is ‘liquid stress’ and can cause those same stress symptoms that send mood into a tailspin. Coffee can make teens nervous and irritable so be sure they use it sparingly to get a small energy boost and not a big downer.

  • For parents, keep in mind that teenagers are just bigger-sized children and still need your help, even if they don’t ask for it. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that size or coolness equates to self-sufficiency. In my experience most teens are thrilled to have a parent help them prepare a healthy breakfast so they can catch up on precious sleep.

  • Be sure to pack an afternoon snack to keep energy up and stress down during sports and after school activities. Zing bars are easy to carry in a backpack or purse and provide a tasty treat with everything necessary to keep going until dinner.

As a wise colleague once said to me… “Happiness is a steady state of blood sugar!”

Amy G. Peck, MS, RD, CPT has a masters degree in nutrition from Columbia University and is a registered dietitian and a personal trainer who loves and specializes in working with adolescent girls and women. She believes food is one of life’s great pleasures and it is her goal to help people embrace happy and healthy eating experiences, and learn to move their bodies with confidence and strength.