Part of becoming a grown-up is learning to take care of yourself. Your parents and loved ones will still be around to help, but as you get older and go through puberty, you become more responsible for your body, and that means developing habits that will help you stay healthy and strong.
Drinking lots of water and eating healthy foods will keep your body going and growing, while getting exercise and a good night’s sleep will rejuvenate your body and mind. It sounds pretty easy, and it is! Understanding the science behind the vitamins and nutrients your body needs and the biology of how your body works makes it pretty interesting, too!
It Starts with Nutrition
You don’t have to tell your body to absorb a certain amount of vitamin A or to get all the calcium out of the milk you drink, do you? Your body is smart enough to know how to do that on its own. All you have to do is eat healthy, nutritious foods, and let your body do the rest.
I talked to Nora Lisman, a certified nutritionist, and she said, “What we eat affects us in so many ways. Our food choices impact everything from our energy levels in gym class to our ability to focus in math. They even impact whether we totally blow up at our mom or at a friend!” (I get cranky when I’m hungry, so I can totally relate to that.)
Calcium, which is found in dairy products (like milk, yogurt, and cheese), in dark, leafy greens (like collard greens and kale), and in soy beans and white beans, is especially important for growing girls, since it helps build and strengthen bones. Having high bone density is really important later in life, and these are the years when you determine how strong your bones will be.
What Are Healthy Foods?
There’s a lot of advice out in the world on what’s healthy. You’ve probably seen the food pyramid, a triangle-shaped diagram that shows how much of each food group you should eat every day. And you’ve probably heard people talking about organic foods. There are a lot of food buzzwords, and it can be difficult to know exactly what everything means.
Instead of trying to memorize everything or getting obsessive over what you’re eating, try to eat fruits and vegetables daily, on top of the other healthy foods you love. When you eat healthy, nutritious foods, you are filling up your body like you would fill up a car with gas—giving it what it needs to go full speed ahead. Junk food and foods filled with sugar and salt slow you down in the long run, while foods with lots of nutrients give you a long-lasting boost.
Balance lots of fruits and veggies with dairy, protein (like eggs, meat, fish, beans, and lentils), and whole grains (like whole-wheat bread and oats). Fill your plate with foods that make your body feel good, give you energy, and help you feel satisfied.
Breakfast = A Better Day
You’ve probably heard people say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. And it is! Without an early-morning infusion of energy, your brain can’t function properly, and you won’t be able to learn or focus as well. Your muscles and bones also need those vitamins and minerals, since they are growing every single minute.
Even if you have early sports practice or wake up a little late, take time to eat. It doesn’t have to be a sit-down meal (although that’s always a great way to start the day). If you’re in a rush, grab something quick and easy, like a piece of fruit, some toast, and a glass of milk, before you run out the door. Having breakfast will give your whole day a boost.
Here are some other great breakfast options:
Scrambled eggs or an omelet (Add in some veggies and salsa to make a Mexican omelet. I love salsa!)
Oatmeal (Mix it up with fun toppings like fruit and nuts.)
Yogurt with granola (You can add fresh fruit to yogurt, too!)
A waffle with fresh fruit
Whole-grain breakfast cereal with milk
A fruit smoothie (For extra nutrition, throw in a handful of spinach or kale with some fruit, ice, and maybe a little yogurt.)
Peanut butter on toast with a piece of fruit or cup of yogurt
Although he probably wasn’t the first to say it, Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of America, is famous for writing, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” It’s a little more complicated than that, but fruits and vegetables are wonderful fuel for your body.
The Scoop on Sugar
Not all sugar is bad, but if you think of food as fuel, then you want to eat the things that give you the most energy possible. Sugar does the opposite. Even though you might feel a burst of energy after you first eat or drink something with lots of sugar, like a candy bar or soda, you eventually get a “sugar crash.” Your body can’t absorb and use processed sugar the same way it uses other more nutritious foods, and too much of it can make you sluggish, tired, and irritable.
It’s a good idea to think about how much sugar is in the foods you’re eating so you make the right choices to keep your body moving and grooving!
MYTH BUSTER: Diet Soda Is NOT Healthier
The companies that make soda try to advertise diet brands as being healthier by saying they have fewer calories. But really, diet soda is filled with chemicals and artificial sweeteners. Studies show that these sweeteners are even worse for your body than real sugar. So do your body a favor, and when you have an occasional soda, skip the diet versions and go for the regular ones. Better yet? Skip soda all together. It’s really just not good for you.
Can You Guess How Much Sugar You Are Eating?
Do you know how much sugar is hiding in common foods? Match the foods on the left with the correct amount of sugar on the right and then check your answers below (you may use some answers more than once). You might be surprised just how much sugar is in some of these foods and drinks.
1. A can of soda
2. A small apple
3. A chocolate bar
4. A bag of fruit-flavored candy
5. A cup of orange juice
6. A piece of white bread
7. A piece of gum
8. 1/2 cup (45 grams) of broccoli
9. A small bag of flavored potato chips
The Average Amount of Sugar in Each
a. 2 1/2 teaspoons
b. 1/2 teaspoon
c. 8 teaspoons
d. 1 teaspoon
e. 10 teaspoons
f. 1/4 teaspoon
g. 6 1/2 teaspoons
Ten sugar cubes are inside each can of soda!
1. A can of soda / e. 10 teaspoons
2. A small apple / a. 21/2 teaspoons
3. A chocolate bar / g. 61/2 teaspoons
4. A bag of fruit-flavored candy / e. 10 teaspoons
5. A cup of orange juice / c. 8 teaspoons
6. A piece of white bread / d. 1 teaspoon
7. A piece of gum / b. 1/2 teaspoon
8. 1/2 cup (45 grams) of broccoli / f. 1/4 teaspoon
9. A small bag of flavored potato chips / b. 1/2 teaspoon
Just like sugar, caffeine is a substance that stimulates your brain—it can make you perk up for a bit, but then makes your body crash. It’s found in a lot of foods and drinks, like coffee, chocolate, most energy drinks, and some soda. But even though it’s legal, caffeine is a drug. It’s addictive, which is why a lot of adults have a cup of coffee every morning to “wake up.” Their bodies and brains get used to having caffeine and eventually need it every day.
Most doctors say it’s not healthy to have a lot of caffeine, and kids and teens should be extra careful to limit their intake. Too much caffeine can keep you from sleeping. Other common side effects are headaches and upset stomachs. Doctors also warn teens that having large amounts of caffeine can cause your heart to beat dangerously fast.
You don’t want to need caffeine every day, and you definitely don’t want to deal with the side effects or feel antsy and agitated, so it’s a good idea to limit how much you have.
GET CONFIDENT: Fun in the Kitchen
You don’t have to eat the same thing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. Get creative and come up with your own meal and snack ideas. Mixing it up keeps your meals interesting and nutritious.
You could learn to make a smoothie for breakfast. I put spinach in mine with lots of fresh fruit like bananas and raspberries, and it tastes amazing! (You won’t even taste the spinach, but it will make the smoothie a cool color!) Maybe you would like to learn how to make a yummy salad or tomato soup and grilled cheese for lunch. You can even try breakfast for dinner, with a mushroom, cheese, and tomato omelet. There are endless options!
Be Your Own Chef: Homemade Pizzas
Not only is cooking at home fun, but it’s usually healthier than eating out. Almost everyone I know loves pizza, and it’s easy to make one in your very own kitchen!
Start with a whole-wheat crust (you can get them at nearly any grocery store) and spread tomato sauce (or a white sauce or pesto, if you want to get really creative) over the crust with the back of a spoon. Then comes the fun part! Sprinkle a little cheese over the sauce and add your favorite toppings to make it perfect for your taste buds. Try precut veggies like mushrooms or broccoli. What about a Hawaiian, with some thinly sliced ham and pineapple? Or get traditional, with some basil and mozzarella for an authentic Italian-style Margherita pizza. I love putting sun-dried tomatoes on almost anything—they add a gourmet flavor.
Make sure to follow your house rules for using the oven. And if your parents help you, maybe you’ll share a slice of your pie!
You probably know from TV and magazines that there are a lot of diets out in the world. But here’s the thing about diets—most of them are completely unhealthy. Some say you should never have bread, and others say you can lose weight eating cookies (honestly!). With all this opposite information out there, how are you supposed to know what’s healthy and what’s not?
As a growing girl, you shouldn’t diet unless a doctor or health care professional is advising you. You need to eat balanced meals in order for your body to grow. So even though it might seem like the rest of the world is doing it, don’t let yourself fall into that trap. Treat your body with respect by feeding yourself the wholesome foods you need to be happy, healthy, and strong.
Talking About Eating Disorders
Instead of letting their bodies develop normally, some girls develop eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Being obsessed with food or your weight is never a good thing. Food isn’t your friend or enemy. Food is fuel for your body. You are supposed to gain weight during puberty; it wouldn’t be healthy if you developed and grew taller but didn’t gain any weight. A girl with an eating disorder doesn’t get enough food, so she has less energy and eventually stops being able to do the things she loves. Eating disorders are serious illnesses and dangerous business.
A person suffering from anorexia nervosa starves herself on purpose, because she perceives herself as fat, even though she isn’t. Without professional help, she will develop major long-term medical conditions like heart problems, and without treatment, she could starve herself to death.
A girl with bulimia nervosa eats a lot of food in a short period of time (this is called “bingeing”) and uses extreme measures, like throwing up or laxatives, to “purge” the food out of her system. Without help, she can suffer long-term medical consequences and even wear away the enamel from her teeth. Untreated, bulimia can also lead to death.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
If you are dealing with anorexia or bulimia (or both), or know someone else who is, you are not alone. You don’t need to be embarrassed or try to handle this by yourself. Girls suffering from eating disorders often feel ashamed and try to hide their actions, so it’s important that you understand that these are serious medical conditions. If you are sick with anorexia or bulimia, it’s not your fault. There are doctors and other adults who care about you and know how to help. It’s important that you talk to an adult and get professional treatment right away. With the right help, you will be able to get healthy and feel like yourself again.
If you think a friend might have an eating disorder, you should talk to her. Let her know that you’re worried and that you care about her. But remember, you aren’t a doctor, and eating disorders require real medical attention. You should talk to an adult you trust and explain why you’re concerned. The most important thing is that your friend gets care and feels loved. You probably want to keep your friend’s trust, but in a situation like this, it’s even more important not to keep secrets and not to try to solve the problem yourself. You want the best thing for your friend, and when it comes to eating disorders, the best thing is professional help.
Move Your Body: Exercise Is Awesome
Good foods aren’t the only things your body needs to be healthy and strong. You’ve got to move your body, too! Nutritionist Nora Lisman says, “When we move around, we increase the flow of blood to our organs, improve our digestion, and keep our heart healthy.” Your muscles and bones need exercise to grow and become strong, too. And exercise even helps reduce stress (and cramps!).
So what can you do to add exercise into your life? It’s not just about going to the gym. In fact, the most fun forms of exercise don’t involve a gym at all. Nora says, “The trick to making exercise a part of your daily life is to make it fun and enjoyable. Put on some music and dance around for half an hour. Play a sport. Go on a bike ride with a friend. Take a walk in nature.” Anything that gets your heart pumping or makes you work up a sweat is good for your body and counts as exercise.
GET CONFIDENT: I Like to Move It, Move It
What do you enjoy doing? Think of your favorite ways to move your body and then go out and do one of them. Have fun!
do somersaults in the backyard
play street hockey
play four square with friends
go on a jog
swing across the monkey bars
hit some powder on your skis or snowboard
go horseback riding
see how long you can stand on your head
speed walk home from the bus stop after school
play volleyball (or beach volleyball!)
walk your dog
play tag with your neighbor
practice your high dive
throw a baseball
ride your bike
play kickball at recess
play touch football in gym class
sprint down the sidewalk
go to gymnastics practice
make up some new dance moves
go to a yoga class
learn or practice tae kwon do
play tennis with a friend
throw a Frisbee or play a game of ultimate . . .
What Else Do You Like to Do?
Stretching is just as important as exercise. It keeps your body flexible and your muscles loose. Tight muscles are more prone to injury. It’s best to stretch your muscles when they’re already warm, so do it after you finish your water polo game or ballet practice.
Here are three good stretches to try. Hold each position for about twenty seconds, and don’t bounce! Just let your body sink into the pose. Stop if a stretch ever hurts or feels pinched. If you have injuries or medical problems, talk to your doctor before you do any kind of exercise or stretching.
Your quadriceps are the muscles on the front of your thighs and do most of the work when you’re walking or running.
Grab your ankle and gently pull it to your butt, bending your knee. You might want to hold on to a table or the back of a chair for balance. Don’t hold your ankle out; your knee should point directly down toward the ground.
Doing the butterfly for swim team? Or maybe you feel a little hunched over from sitting at your desk all day? This is a great stretch for the upper body and arms.
Grab your hands behind your back and, keeping your arms straight, lift them slightly, pushing your chest out.
This is one of my all-time favorite stretches—it helps relax your entire body! Sometimes I do this one before I go to sleep at night just to give all my muscles a stretch after the day.
Lie down on a yoga mat or rug. Extend your arms and point your toes, making your whole body into a long, straight line, and then stretch, pulling your hands away from your head and your toes in the opposite direction. You should be able to feel this in your stomach muscles, arms, chest, back, and legs.
This very second, while you’re reading this sentence, your body is growing! Your hair is getting longer, your feet are getting bigger, even your fingernails and toenails are growing. Your body is able to do all this (and much more!) without you even thinking about it. But in order to keep going, your body needs time to rest and rejuvenate.
Dr. Michele Borba is an educational psychologist and author of major books on growing up like The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. She says the average growing teenager needs about nine and a half hours of sleep per day, but the exact amount is different for everyone, so you need to figure out how much YOU need and stick to that. You might not be a teenager yet, but as you hit puberty, your body needs more rest, since it’s doing so much growing. And your brain needs sleep, too. So if you’re feeling cranky and overwhelmed, try sleeping more. She says it’s also important to watch out for “sleep deprivers” like caffeine, energy drinks, cold and cough medicines, and even the computer, which can keep you up past your bedtime and prevent your body from getting real, restful sleep.
Setting up regular nighttime rituals for yourself can help you get better sleep. Try to get to bed at a normal time, and don’t leave the phone or computer on in your bedroom. The bright electronic light can keep your brain partially awake, and it’s hard to fall or stay asleep if you’re getting phone calls or text messages. So turn them off! You won’t miss anything. If you get a good night’s rest, you’ll be ready to talk to your friends, do your homework, and ace those new karate moves you’ve been practicing. You’ll get the most out of your day and enjoy everything you’re doing! Dr. Borba says, “One of the simplest ways to help you maintain balance is by getting enough ZZZzzzs.”
I have a friend who can fall asleep in the middle of an action movie at the theater! But not everyone is like that. You may have heard someone say, “I can’t sleep. I have such bad insomnia.” Or maybe even call themselves “insomniacs.” Insomnia is when people have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep through the night, and it’s not fun. Most of the time, people get insomnia because of stress, anxiety, or uncomfortable sleep conditions, like when it’s too hot or too cold.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, think about what could be keeping you up. Are you having a hard time at school or maybe not getting along with a friend or sibling? Maybe you’re worried about your history test or trying out for the basketball team. It’s kind of a catch-22, because when you are worried, it can be hard to sleep, but you need a good night’s sleep to deal with worries! Without sleep, the things you’re stressed about can seem even worse than they really are. You just can’t deal with stress as well when you’re exhausted.
Talking it through with someone, like a parent or doctor, can help. Your doctor can suggest tips for sleeping better, like relaxation techniques or maybe a change of diet. You don’t have to go through another sleepless night!
Having a nighttime routine signals to your brain and body that it’s time to call it a day. Turn off all your electronic devices (like the TV, computer, or cell phone) at least one hour before bed and try to go to bed around the same time every night.
How Do I Stop Wetting the Bed?
I haven’t ever told my friends, but sometimes I wet the bed at night. I’m almost a teenager, and I’m worried there is something wrong with me. Do other people ever wet the bed? What should I do?
Just because no one talks about bed-wetting, doesn’t mean no one else has this problem. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.
The medical name for wetting the bed is enuresis (which sounds like en-yur-ee-sis). Most of the time, girls wet the bed because they sleep really deeply and have smaller bladders (the organ in your body that holds urine, or pee) than adults. While you’re in a deep sleep, your body might not wake you up in time to go to the bathroom. And if you don’t wake up in time, your bladder will naturally empty out.
Bed-wetting usually goes away on its own—you just grow out of it. In the meantime, it’s definitely something to talk to your mom or dad about. They can help you get clean sheets on your bed and can arrange for you to talk to a doctor if needed, just to make sure nothing else is going on with your health.
A few other tips to remember:
Avoid drinking anything for at least an hour before bedtime.
Go to the bathroom right before you go to bed.
See if leaving the door to your bedroom open and a nightlight on helps you wake up when you feel the urge to go to the bathroom.
And remember, lots of girls go through this.
Dealing with Scary Dreams
Your brain processes thoughts and sends out signals, even when you are in a deep sleep. Your dreams are the most vivid during the deepest stage of sleep, which is why it’s especially scary when you have a nightmare.
The worst part of nightmares is that they feel very real. When you’re in the middle of one, your heart can start racing, and you might even cry out or wake yourself up with a jerk.
The images and scenes in nightmares can come from lots of different sources. Maybe you saw a scary movie or read a chilling book. Or maybe you’ve just been worried about something and that worry is showing up in your dreams in a scary way. Sometimes your brain just processes things in your life and jumbles them together. But remember that no matter how lifelike your nightmare seems, it isn’t real.
Most nightmares go away on their own after you talk about them. So instead of keeping your bad dreams inside, tell a parent or trusted adult about them. You can also try sleeping with a night-light on for a few nights or keeping your bedroom door open. Then, if you wake up from a nightmare, you’ll know right away that you’re in a safe place. I also like to take some deep breaths after I have a nightmare. It helps calm me down and slow that scary, heart-pounding feeling.
If you still feel wide awake after you get in bed, do some breathing exercises—count to five while you inhale, hold the breath for five seconds, and count to five while you exhale. Do this for a few breaths to help slow down your mind and get to a calm place.