If you’re a parent of a boy or even a posse of boys, then you are probably keen to know how to help them grow into well-adjusted, happy, strong, healthy self-confident young men. I will share with you my nutritional and lifestyle nuggets on how to navigate this notoriously bumpy road whilst growing up from a boy to a young man.
Boys and puberty: how their body changes
For boys, puberty (which is a stage of development that marks the transition from childhood to adolescence), typically begins between the ages of 9 and 14, but you will probably see the main changes from 12 years old. The journey to full puberty can last anywhere from 2 to 5 years. During these years, boys will experience a number of physical and emotional changes as their bodies begin to mature.
For many boys the first sign of puberty is the growth of their penis and testicles, and this is known as genital development. This stage typically begins around the age of 9 or 10 and your son may notice a change in the size and shape of his scrotum.
Another significant period is around the ages of 11 and 12, where they start to notice the growth of their muscles, bones and height. You may also note that the shape of their face starts to change, and they begin to lose their baby face. This growth spurt may last for several years. Pubic hair can also start to grow from around the age of 12.
One of the more conspicuous changes is when their voice breaks. You will notice that their voice deepens and becomes more mature, it may also start to crack or break at times. This usually happens around the age of 13 or 14 and is caused by growth of the vocal cords which changes the structure of their larynx.
Boys also experience emotional changes when navigating puberty, as hormones such as testosterone start to play a role in shaping the way your son starts to think and feel. It’s not unusual for them to feel a little more self-conscious at this time and they may become more sensitive and reactive to the opinions and reactions of others. They may also experience a range of emotions, including anger, sadness and anxiety.
As your little boy starts to mature, he will also start to develop a greater sense of independence. He is likely to become curious about exploring new experiences and experimenting with different forms of self-expression. It is also not unusual for boys to form stronger friendships and romantic interests during this time.
During the pubescent years you will notice additional physical symptoms, such as sweating, increased body odour and acne. These symptoms are caused by hormonal changes and it’s helpful to encourage your boys to start taking care of their skin and body by washing regularly and using natural deodorants.
This can be a challenging and difficult time for some boys. If so, it is important to reassure them that these changes are perfectly normal and natural. It’s a process that all young men go through and there is nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about.
By the time you are on the case, they will almost certainly have heard a lot already from their school and from their friends there. Some boys may have a “know it all” attitude, but the reality is they will have huge gaps in their understanding of what is going on, and little to no awareness around how their hormones and emotions are shaping their sense of reality.
Sometimes it is hard to step in. But if your son is struggling, then you should encourage him to talk through any concerns or questions with a trusted adult, who can help fill in the gaps. Some boys prefer to discuss with other guys, so this could be another male member of the family, teacher or mentor. But don’t assume that is always the case. Ask him if he would prefer to talk about it with you, or someone else of the opposite sex to you. Be assured that with the right support and guidance, boys can navigate this stage of development with confidence and grace.
Every boy’s experience of puberty will of course differ, so it’s important that your son feels fully supported and that he should also be patient and accepting of himself and not compare himself to his peers.
Puberty is a time when a lad’s nutrition is extra important. Nutrient intake needs are higher at this development stage, and it’s imperative to ensure you have the essential ones covered.
What are the core nutrient requirements for boys during puberty?
- Protein power – One of the most important macronutrients to support puberty and growth is protein. Protein is essential for skin, hair, nails, bones, cartilage and muscles. It builds and repairs and helps in the regulation of growth and development during puberty.
Our bodies are unable to store protein so it’s essential to include some at every meal or snack. The DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) is 0.36g of protein per pound of body weight (0.8g per kg) for inactive teens. So, if your son weighs 10 stone (63.5kg) he would need 50g of protein per day. However, if your son is sporty and active then his protein requirements lie somewhere between 1g-1.6g protein per kg of weight, so that would be between 63g and 101g of protein per day, depending on his weight.
Your son can enjoy complete protein from meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy. Plant-based foods with complete proteins include quinoa, edamame beans, buckwheat, hemp, tofu, tempeh and chia seeds. But he will really have to eat a great volume of these foods to match animal based protein. It’s totally ok to top up with protein powders added to smoothies and milkshakes as long as he doesn’t over do it and consume too much protein on a regular basis and keeps within the guidelines above. Also bear in mind that if they need to be on a gluten-free diet then their bread will probably have much lower levels of protein than wheat based bread.
- Zinc for growth – Zinc is a super important mineral essential for normal growth and development. If your son is deficient in zinc, then it can interfere with the normal process of puberty and can be a cause of delayed puberty. He may also suffer from frequent infections, be slow to grow, have a decreased appetite and become increasingly picky with what he will eat. Zinc helps the synthesis of protein, which we already know is a crucial macronutrient at this time. It is also a key nutrient for mood and learning as it is one of the building blocks for making neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and GABA.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for zinc is 8mg for ages 8-11 years and 11mg from the age of 14. These levels are the minimum daily amounts needed, and without enough their appetite may wane and they may become more selective with their food, which can be a very negative spiral. The richest food sources for zinc include meat, seafood and fish; eggs and dairy products also contain some zinc, as do beans, nuts and wholegrains.
- Mighty iron – With so much growth and change during puberty comes a greater need for iron. When iron stores are low it makes studying and learning difficult, it is harder to fight off infections, you can lack energy, feel cold and look very pale. Foods that contain animal-based “heme” iron are oysters, clams, red meat, liver, and fish. Plant-based sources of iron include lentils, beans, tofu, spinach, molasses, peas and dried fruits such as apricots, prunes and raisins. The NIH recommends a minimum daily intake of 8mg of iron for males ages 9-13, increasing to 11mg for ages 14-18, then dropping back to 8mg from the age of 19.
- Bone building calcium – Intensive bone and muscular development during the teen years means a lad’s calcium needs are higher to ensure optimum peak bone mass is achieved and help protect against osteoporosis in adult life. The NIH suggest that males aged between 9-18 years need 1,300mg per day, and then it drops back to 1,000mg per day after adolescence. Sources of calcium include milk, yoghurt and cheese; non-dairy sources are canned sardines and salmon with bones as well as tofu, tahini, kale and broccoli.
- Folate for growth spurts – Teens also need plenty of folate which is found in lots of foods such as green leafy vegetable, citrus fruits, pulses, beans, nuts, seafood, eggs, dairy, meat and poultry. Folate helps with the growth of new cells, which is important with all those growth spurts. If you are deficient in folate, it also puts you at a greater risk of developing anaemia (iron deficiency).
In general, good nutrition is essential for growing boys and research shows that in pubertal development both protein and energy (calories) are essential, with boys requiring 2,500-3,000 calories per day on average. But inevitable growth spurts will change their appetite hugely. Total nutrient needs are higher during adolescence than at any other time in their life cycle. Nutritional deficiencies and poor eating habits in adolescents can potentially have long-term consequences including short stature and delayed sexual maturity, as well as increased likelihood of becoming overweight or obese.
My guidelines for early & late developers, spots and pimples and risky behaviour
- Early developers
Precocious puberty in boys is when his body starts to develop into a more adult body too early. This is quite rare and is considered precocious if they start to develop before the age of nine. Whiffy arm pits or small blackheads on the face before the age of 9 are quite common nowadays. However if you see growth signs in your son such as a larger penis and testicles or a deeper voice and a more muscular before the age of nine years old, then it is important to seek medical advice and to rule out infections, hormone disorders or a tumour in the adrenal glands or in the pituitary gland.
- Late developers
If your son is developing a little later than expected, then one factor to consider is that it could be down to environmental factors such as excess exposure to plastics and other environmental pollutants. BPA and phthalates in our environment are known to affect hormone development which can speed up puberty in girls and slow things down in boys. An easy win is to avoid drinking out of plastic bottles and invest in a good quality stainless steel water bottle instead. Also encourage drinking filtered water as this ensures that contaminants such as chlorine, heavy metals, bacteria and microplastics have been removed. Nutrition-wise zinc as described above is a key nutrient for growth, especially at the onset of puberty.
- Spots and pimples
Skin blemishes can be embarrassing but also painful. If your boy is struggling with his skin consider increasing their intake of omega-3 fats (salmon, sardines, grass-fed meat, organic whole milk, omega 3 rich eggs, flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts) and cut back on consumption of refined carbohydrates such as white sugar, sweetened drinks, cakes, pastries, cookies and sweets. Try to get lots of greens into your son’s diet and start him off with a good natural skin care routine. Zinc status is also linked to skin health, and when a teen boy gets enough zinc their skin tends to clear up.
- Monosyllabic teens
If your darling chatty boy has become monosyllabic on you and is also having mood swings, then it’s worth supporting his gut health as 90% of serotonin (which is important for mood), is made in the gut. You could try a probiotic food supplement or simply give the gut bugs what they want and that is to eat a diverse range of foods, including some fermented foods such as yoghurt, kefir, picked cucumbers, kimchi, miso, kombucha as well as high fibre foods broccoli, lentils, raspberries, green peas, whole grains and bananas.
- Risky behaviours
Finally, have you noticed that your son has started engaging in risky behaviour and is more rebellious such as skipping school, smoking, getting drunk or simply being quite a “Jack the Lad”? Well this could be down to excess glutamate in his diet paired with low intake of gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) rich foods. Glutamate buzzes up the brain and GABA helps to keep it nice and calm.
Glutamate acts on glutamate receptors in the brain and releases excitatory neurotransmitters. In excess, glutamate can overstimulate the neurons in the brain which in turn can lead to the challenging behaviours. Too much glutamate can also affect a teenager’s sleep, and this is one of the reasons they may become a night owl. Glutamate is found in abundance in ultra-processed foods and is a chemical found in many modern-day food additives such as yeast extract, citric acid and natural flavourings which are added to most convenience packaged foods. High glutamate sauces include ketchup, soya sauce and Worcestershire sauce which teen boys tend to enjoy consuming in large quantities.
The counterbalance to glutamate is GABA which is an inhibitory neurotransmitter and behaves as an “inner yogi”, keeping your son cool, calm and collected. Research suggests during adolescence that GABA receptors are significantly lower compared to adults and therefore your teen needs to work harder to gain this calming effect. Low GABA contributes to impulsiveness as well as reduced ability to resist participating in risky behaviour. Low GABA can also lower the important innate feeling of personal responsibility. Foods that contain GABA include oats, chamomile tea, black/green tea as well as fermented foods such as kimchi, miso and tempeh. It’s also found in sweet potatoes, mushrooms, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and brown rice. Theanine, lemon balm and passionflower are botanicals that can help to encourage the calming GABA response.
Raising teen and tween boys can sometimes be tricky, and they can often struggle to communicate. But as a parent there are lots of things you can do to support your son so that when he comes out of the other side of the teenage years, he is developing into a confident, strong, balanced young man. So, please share this article with your sons and your friends with boys and as usual, please feel free to drop any questions below.
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Hi Lucinda this couldn’t have come at a better time – I have twin boys age 11, one is vegetarian, and was very small at birth, I’m always concerned about getting enough protein into him! He has always been a very slow reluctant eater. The other is omnivore and I’m less concerned about his nutrition. But for both (and me!) how can I get more green leafy vegetables into our diet? (I should add I’m often finding cooking from scratch pretty tough – my husband , their dad , died last year and he was the main cook.)
Vegetarian and gluten free (I’m coeliac) meals for 3 including green leafy veg?
Could we have smoothies?
Ideas welcome! Thank you
Gosh it sounds like you have all had a really tough time and cooking for you all must be super hard too. I’d add spinach or cavolo nero to Italian bean stew/GF minestrone or a rice noodle miso soup recipe with tofu and also add greens and protein to smoothies – see my recipes for smoothies here https://naturedoc.com/?s=smoothie – also try making the GF version of my Green Goodness Muffins https://naturedoc.com/recipe/green-goodness-muffins/
Can all your 3 recommended vitamins be taken at the same time?
yes they can!