Nutritional Needs of a Teenager

What kind of nutrition is best for teenagers?

Sometimes, it seems like teens want to eat all of the wrong foods, but none of the right ones. Thankfully, parents have a lot of influence over teenagers’ nutrition.

There are several nutrients that should be in every teen’s diet. Some foods are better off avoided.

With a little knowledge and planning, it’s actually pretty easy to make sure your teen eats healthily.

Daily Requirements for Teens

Fuel for Growth

It’s no coincidence that preteens’ appetites skyrocket. The growth associated with puberty requires quite large amounts of calories.

Boys should eat an average of 2,800 cals each day. This may be a shock to girls living on 1,200 cals: teen girls actually need about 2,200 daily.

Many teens participate in sports, so they need even more energy. In this case, girls need up to 3,000 cals, and boys need up to 4,000.

Milk Media: The Importance of Calcium

As teens’ bodies grow, so do their bones. Both boys and girls need 1300mg of calcium each day.

Vitamin D promotes calcium absorption. Humans synthesize this vitamin from sunlight, but it can also be found in fatty fish, cheese, egg yolks, and fortified foods.

Although milk is the most famous bone builder, lactose-intolerant kids have other calcium options. In fact, they can usually eat yogurt and cheese because they contain little lactose.

For people who need or prefer to avoid dairy products, these foods also contain calcium:

  • turnip greens, 105mg/cup
  • broccoli, 43mg/cup
  • almonds, 74mg/ounce

Fat… is a Good Thing

Surprised to see fat on a list of things that teens should eat? After years of fat being demonized in the media, it is understandable that parents are wary of it.

Fortunately, the U.S. has withdrawn warnings to avoid cholesterol. As the backbone of sex hormones, this nutrient is especially important for maturing teens.

Dietary fat has multiple health benefits, and it provides more cals per gram than protein and carbs do combined. It also helps the body to absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K.

While cholesterol is important for hormone development, it is not the only type of healthy fat. Teens should eat fat from a variety of sources:

  • monounsaturated fat (olive oil, avocados, cashews)
  • saturated fat (beef/pork, poultry with skin, whole fat dairy)
  • omega-3 polyunsaturated fat (seafood, chia seeds, walnuts)
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The only fat that teens should limit is omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid. It is found in some meats, nuts, and vegetable oils.

In excess, these foods can push the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 above the recommended maximum 4:1. Too much omega-6 and too little omega-3 in the diet causes chronic inflammation.

Sugar: Not So Sweet

Eating sugar triggers dopamine release. This is why we like to eat it — it causes a reaction that makes us feel good.

Teens are highly sensitive to this process. High-sugar diets can disrupt reward centers in teenage brains, and intensify depression and anxiety.

Even in amounts too low to cause fat gain, sugar affects hormones. This causes unstable moods and energy levels.

It also causes behavioral issues that can manifest themselves at school. A 2012 experiment showed that replacing soft drinks with healthier options in school vending machines resulted in fewer tardies and disciplinary referrals.

These unfortunate consequences don’t just apply to table sugar; refined grains provide the same effect.

Female Nutrition: Not “As Little As You Can Possibly Eat”

Think of some typical “chick foods.” Your list probably looks something like this:

  • crackers
  • fat-free flavored yogurt
  • skinless chicken

A diet like this is problematic. Several of these foods are high in sugar and refined carbohydrates.

Additionally, these foods provide very little sustenance. As we’ve mentioned, girls need way more food than they often try to survive on.

Stereotypical feminine foods also lack important nutrients.

Women need fat in their diets, particularly omega-3 and saturated fats. They also need iron to replace what they lose through menstruation.

Here are a couple of guidelines specific to your daughter’s nutrition:

Encourage eating. Many teenage girls limit fat and calories to stay thin, but all teens need to eat enough to grow.

Get plenty of iron. The RDA for girls is 15mg/day.

Growing Boys Need Protein

During adolescence, a boy’s lean muscle mass doubles. He needs plenty of protein, the building blocks of muscle cells.

When choosing foods, teens should prioritize complete proteins. Comprised of meat, eggs, and dairy, foods in this group contain all nine essential amino acids.

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Combining incomplete proteins, like beans, nuts, and grains, can provide all of the amino acids that the body needs.

What Shouldn’t Teens Eat?

Two things that teens should avoid are prevalent in processed and fast food:

  1. excess sugar
  2. inflammatory fats used as frying oils

What if your child loves eating nuggets, or sometimes needs to pick up a quick meal? Teens are going to eat processed food, and that’s okay!

Ultimately, prioritizing good foods is the best dietary strategy for everyone. If you include enough good foods in a diet, then they will overcrowd the “bad” ones.

There Are No “Bad” Foods… Really!

Why is “bad” in quotation marks? Nutrition experts like Elisa Zied, RDN discourage labeling foods as “bad,” as this can lead to negative feelings about eating.

You should always remember that your child is just that: a child. Kids make questionable choices all the time, often about food.

As a parent, you shouldn’t stress about every food that your teen consumes. The popular “80/20 rule” suggests that some weekly indulgences are totally fine in the scope of a healthy diet.

There are simple ways to ensure that your teen eats well at least 80% of the time:

Cook healthy meals at home. This method also gets the family together, and evidence shows that kids who eat regular family meals are less likely to participate in risk behaviors.

Pay attention to labels when buying convenience foods. While many ingredient lists make us want to put back the box, others are pleasantly surprising — Bugles are fried in coconut oil!

Summing It Up

Teenager nutrition is quite similar to that of any life stage: we all need a variety of whole foods to be healthy.

Teens need to eat enough calories and calcium just to grow tissues and bones. Athletic teens need to consume even more.

Extreme hormonal changes are part of adolescence. Avoiding excess sugar and eating healthy fats keeps those hormones balanced.

Taking proactive interest in your child’s health is one of the best things that you can do. Just don’t get so lost in nutrition facts that you forget to encourage other important things: flexibility, enjoyment of food, and fun!