Like many mothers before me, I was shocked, angry and saddened by what I found under my teenage son’s bed when the arrival of a visitor forced me to do what I’d been putting off forever - clean up his room.

It wasn’t one of the more sinister things that you may be imagining, but an empty Monte Carlo packet, supermarket cake container and, of course, several empty Skittles wrappers.

I thought I was doing everything right: I always set a good example in eating wholesome food without going to extremes; we have home-cooked meals together as a family with no TV or devices at the table; and I restrict highly processed snacks while offering plenty of healthy options.

In a bid to stop my son joining the hordes of high school kids who flock to a local service station for junk food each morning and afternoon, I minimise his disposable income by depositing pocket money directly into his bank account. However, there’s always lots of negotiation about whether he gets cash for doing extra chores because I know how he will probably spend that money.

One challenge parents face in keeping teenage boys away from high-sugar, high trans-fat food is that they are always so hungry! Due to their rapid growth, boys aged 12-15 years need 8200-9000 kilojoules a day and those aged 16-18 years need 10300-10900, compared with 9900 a day for men aged 31-50 years, according to Nutrition Australia.

My efforts to make my son fill up on wholesome food has prompted regular complaints that I am not buying a certain milk drink or breakfast cereal. This has sparked a number of talks about the importance of good nutrition.

But, as Perth counsellor Jennie Fitzhardinge says, convincing an adolescent to do something that’s good for them can be daunting. “I suggest adopting the techniques of Motivational Interviewing (used for drug and alcohol addiction treatment). Basically, you identify the person’s values and goals and then link how following a particular diet will help them to achieve their aims,” Ms Fitzhardinge says. “For example, those goals might be clearing up acne, studying more effectively and remembering more, performing better at sport or relieving feelings of being overwhelmed.”

"The most important thing is to remember that it is your son’s goals and aims that are the source of motivation here, not what you think is good for him" - Jennie Fitzhardinge

Motivational Interviewing, or MI, involves four main techniques (known by the acronym OARS) for guiding conversation towards change.
1. Open-ended questions
2. Affirming
3. Reflecting
4. Summarising

There are some good examples of using MI with teenagers on YouTube illustrating how the technique can work. Preparation is also recommended when using MI. My underweight son gave me the thin person’s defence: “But I’m skinny, I can eat what I want.” When confronted with this response, I turned to some compelling findings about the effects of sugar on the brain, in addition to the well-known physical impacts of obesity and diabetes.

Paediatrician, emergency medicine doctor and mother, Dr Dina Kulik, likens sugar to drugs. “Sugar hijacks the brain. When sugar hits the reward centre of the brain it releases a surge of dopamine that makes us feel good initially, but that “lift” doesn’t last. Over time we need more and more sugar to get that same boost. This starts the cycle of cravings and, in vulnerable children, addictions are often formed," she says.

WA’s Telethon Kids Institute Raine Study Nutrition team has found that a Western diet (high in takeaway foods, red and processed meat, soft drink, and fried and refined foods) has been associated with poorer cognition in adolescents.

Chief investigator Dr Gina Trapp made special mention of the potentially fatal effects of energy drinks (containing high levels of caffeine, sugar, sodium, herbal extracts and amino acids) which are so popular among young people, especially boys. "They are linked to serious adverse health effects including increased blood pressure, cardiac abnormalities, insomnia, liver damage, kidney failure, seizures, anxiety, psychosis, hallucinations and sudden death,” she says.

Some other interesting facts to keep in your “did you know …?” arsenal for an MI session is food scientist Steven Witherly’s findings about why most of us like food that is full of sugar and trans-fats (the fats in processed food that ramp up the risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke).

After spending 20 years studying what makes certain foods more tasty - and addictive - than others, he explains his findings in the book Why Humans Like Junk Food. Food companies, he says, spend millions of dollars to find the most appealing level of crunch in a chip and task scientists with perfecting the fizz in a soft drink. They also search for the ideal combination of salt, sugar and fat that excites our brains and gets us coming back for more.

One of the holy grails of food manufacturing is referred to as ‘dynamic contrast’. This happens when an edible shell that goes crunch is followed by something soft and full of taste-active compounds. Think pizza, pies - or a Monte Carlo biscuit! The good news is that research shows that the less junk food people eat, the less they crave it. If only the first step wasn't so hard!

But back to my son who says I’m ‘too extreme’. My initial attempts at Motivational Interviewing have not yet resulted in him asking for tofu burgers with a side of mung beans for an after-school snack. However my now more gentle suggestions about how he can improve his performance in the classroom and sports fields have stopped the relentlessness of his demands for sugary drinks and cereals.


 Sources and more information:

  • Jennie Fitzhardinge (M Couns) Navigator Counselling and Coaching
  • Dr Dina Kulik (DrDina.ca)
  • Why Humans Like Junk Food by Steven Witherly
  • Nutrition Australia (nutritionaustralia.org)
  • Telethon Kids Institute (telethonkids.org.au)