Adolescence is a time of growth and change. Teenagers need more calories and nutrients than any other age group to support their growing bodies. Yet most teens eat too many empty-calorie foods and come up short on many important nutrients. Here you will find information on your teen’s nutritional needs and practical suggestions for helping them eat a healthier diet.
Key Components of a Healthy Diet for Adolescents
Adolescents need a lot of calories to support the rapid growth that occurs during this time and to fuel their busy lives. The amount of calories that your teen needs varies depending on age, sex, and activity level. Most adolescent girls need somewhere around 2,200 calories per day, while most adolescent boys need 2,500-3,000 calories per day.
Between school work, sports, and other activities, teens are often so busy they don’t have time to eat balanced meals that provide the calories and nutrients they need. Still, it is also easy to eat too many calories, especially when poor food choices are made. Over time, this can lead to excess weight and obesity. Make sure your teen gets the amount of calories they need by:
- Providing them with a variety of nutrient-rich foods from all the different food groups
- Limiting foods that are high in added sugar or fat, but provide little else, such as candy bars, chips, cakes, cookies, donuts, and regular soda
- Serving reasonable portion sizes and then letting your teen have more if they are still hungry (serving too much food at one time encourages overeating)
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for your teen. About 45%-65% of their calories should come from carbohydrates. Encourage your teen to choose healthy carbohydrate-rich foods, such as whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and milk. Limit foods that are high in refined flour or added sugar, such as white bread, non-whole-grain crackers, cookies, juice, and soda.
Your teen needs protein for growth and repair, as well as to build muscle. About 15%-25% of your teen’s calories should come from protein. Good sources include poultry, lean meat, seafood, eggs, nuts, soy, legumes, and low-fat and nonfat dairy products.
Adolescents need between 25%-35% of their calories as fat. Dietary fat provides essential fatty acids that are necessary for proper growth. It also helps transport the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K and maintain healthy skin. Your teen’s fat intake should come mostly from healthy fats, such as those found in vegetable oils (canola and olive oil), nuts, avocados, olives, and fatty fish (salmon, sardines, and tuna).
Vitamins & Minerals
Research shows that many adolescents, particularly girls, do not get all the vitamins and minerals they need. If you feel your teen’s diet is not as “balanced” as it could be, ask their pediatrician about multivitamin supplementation. Also, you can serve fortified breakfast cereal.
While all vitamins and minerals are important, here are a few that adolescents often fall short on:
Essential for building strong bones and teeth
Milk, cheese, yogurt, tofu, calcium-fortified orange juice, calcium-fortified cereal, and canned salmon
Important for proper growth during adolescence
Orange juice, fortified breakfast cereals, bread, milk, dried beans, and lentils
Necessary for transporting red blood cells; not getting enough from the diet can result in iron-deficiency anemia
Meat, chicken, fish, and fortified breakfast cereal
Helps promote proper growth and sexual maturation during adolescence
Chicken, meat, shellfish, whole grains, and fortified breakfast cereal
Necessary for proper vision, growth, and immune system functioning
Carrots, fortified breakfast cereal, milk, and cheese
Necessary for the body to use the calcium that is consumed
Fortified milk, salmon, and egg yolks—sunshine allows your body to make vitamin D, but be aware of the dangers of getting too much sun
Helps protect the body from damage
Nuts, seeds, whole grains, spinach, and fortified breakfast cereal
Helps regulate the heartbeat, build strong bones, and keep blood pressure within a normal range
Whole grains, green vegetables, and legumes
Most adolescents do not eat enough fiber. Diets high in fiber tend to be lower in total calories, fat, and cholesterol than diets that are low in fiber. What’s more, research shows that a high fiber intake may help prevent heart disease and certain kinds of cancer. Fiber can also help prevent constipation and increase fullness following a meal. To be sure your teen is getting enough fiber, teach them to choose whole grains over refined grains, and encourage them to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
While it may not be a nutrient, physical activity is a key component of any healthy diet. Encourage your teen to be physically active every day. If necessary, set limits on the amount of time spent watching TV or using the computer. All physical activity counts—whether it is being involved with school sports, taking dance lessons, shooting hoops in the driveway, or walking to school. There are countless ways to get moving.
Eating Guide for Adolescents
This eating guide is based on the United States Department of Agriculture's Choose My Plate website. It lists the main food groups, examples of the recommended daily amount for different ages, as well as suggestions about which foods to choose in each group. The recommended daily amount varies based on age, weight, sex, and activity level. Use the daily amounts below as a starting guide, then go to their website for more individualized recommendations.
Grains (1 ounce = 1 slice bread; ¼ bagel; ½ cup cooked pasta or rice; 5 whole-wheat crackers)
- 12-18 years old: 6 ounces
- 12 years old: 7 ounces
- 15 years old: 9 ounces
- 18 years old: 10 ounces
- At least ½ of grains should be whole grains
- Whole grains include: whole wheat products, oatmeal, brown rice, barley, bulgur, popcorn
Vegetables (1 cup = 1 cup raw or cooked vegetables; 2 cups raw leafy vegetables)
- 12-18 years old: 2.5 cups
- 12 years old: 3 cups
- 15 years old: 3.5 cups
- 18 years old: 3.5 cups
- Encourage a variety of different vegetables
Provide more of the following:
- Dark green (broccoli, spinach, bok choy, romaine lettuce)
- Orange (carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash)
- Dry beans and peas (chickpeas, black beans, lentils, split peas, kidney beans, tofu)
Fruits (1 cup = 1 cup fresh fruit; 1 cup fruit juice; ½ cup dried fruit)
- 12-18 years old: 2 cups
- 12 years old: 2 cups
- 15 years old: 2 cups
- 18 years old: 2.5 cups
- Offer a variety of fruit and 100% fruit juice
Milk (1 cup = 8 ounces milk or yogurt; 1½ ounces natural cheese)
- 12-18 years old: 3 cups
- 12 years old: 3 cups
- 15 years old: 3 cups
- 18 years old: 3 cups
- Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy products such as milk, yogurt, kefir, and cheese
- Milk alternatives include calcium-rich or -fortified foods and beverages, such as soy milk and fortified orange juice
Protein (1 ounce = 1 ounce meat, fish, or poultry; ¼ cup cooked, dry beans; 1 egg; 1 tablespoon peanut butter; ½ ounce nuts)
- 12-18 years old: 5.5 ounces
- 12 years old: 6 ounces
- 15 years old: 6.5 ounces
- 18 years old: 7 ounces
- Choose lean meats and poultry
- Offer more fish and vegetarian sources of protein, such as beans, peas, nuts, and seeds
Fats and Sweets
- 12-18 years old: 265 calories
- 12 years old: 290 calories
- 15 years old: 410 calories
- 18 years old: 425 calories
- Limit foods high in added sugar or solid fats (for example, soda, candy, cookies, muffins, chips, French fries, and fried foods)
- Look for products that contain no saturated or trans fats
Healthy Eating Ideas
Encourage your teen to start the day off with breakfast. Studies show that children learn better when fueled with breakfast, yet most skip this important meal. Ideally it should include foods from the different food groups. While your son or daughter may not have time for a sit-down breakfast, here are some choices that can be eaten on-the-run:
- Drinkable yogurt and whole-wheat toast
- Fruit smoothie and granola bar
- Whole-grain cereal with milk or yogurt
- Egg and cheese breakfast sandwich
For those who prefer non-breakfast foods, leftovers and sandwiches are good choices.
Because of their high energy needs, most teens should eat 2-3 snacks a day: a mid-morning snack, an afternoon snack, and perhaps an evening snack.
While you cannot control the snacks your child eats away from home, you can pack a healthy snack for between classes or before sports practice. Some ideas include:
- Fresh fruit slices
- Drinkable yogurt
- Low-fat granola bars
- Whole-grain crackers and sliced cheese
- String cheese
- Grilled cheese on whole-wheat bread
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
- Sliced, raw vegetables with low-fat dip
- Whole-grain pretzels
- Trail mix
- Hummus and pita bread
- Bagel pizza
- Frozen whole-grain waffles
- Air-popped popcorn
Encourage your teen to purchase healthy lunches. If you pack a lunch for your child, ask for her input and then do your best to ensure a balanced, healthy meal. Even if your child does not eat the healthiest meal at lunch, eating something is better than nothing.
While it may be difficult to have dinner together, try to make it happen at least a few times every week. Research shows that children who eat dinner with their families tend to have higher quality diets than those who do not. A healthy dinner includes whole grains, vegetables, lean protein, and low-fat dairy, and sometimes dessert.
Ways to Improve Your Teen's Diet
- Encourage your teen to eat at least 2 snacks per day—one in the mid-morning and one after school. If your teen is involved with sports or after school activities, pack something that he can eat beforehand.
- Most teens consume too much unhealthy fat, added sugar, and salt. Buy healthy choices, like fresh fruit, sliced vegetables, whole-grain pretzels, whole-wheat crackers, low-fat granola bars, fresh whole-grain bread, frozen yogurt, low-fat milk or soy milk, seltzer water, and flavored water. Get out of the habit of buying less healthy snack foods, such as chips, cookies, juice (unless 100% fruit juice), and soda.
- Try to cook at home. Home-cooked meals tend to be healthier and lower in calories, fat, and salt than restaurant food.
- Get your teen involved with meal planning, shopping, and cooking. The more involved they are, the more likely they will take an interest in trying the foods that you prepare.
- Eat together as much as you can. Try to make it happen a few nights during the week.
- Talk to your child about healthy eating and why it is important. Stress the immediate benefits (it will help you excel in school, run faster, throw the ball farther, have better skin).
- Be aware of excessive dieting and eating disorders. If your child has unhealthy eating behaviors, such as going on different diets, routinely skipping meals, using laxatives, or throwing up after meals, express your concern. You may want to also talk to a doctor and a school counselor.
- Reviewer: Dianne Scheinberg Rishikof MS, RD, LDN
- Review Date: 01/2016 -
- Update Date: 05/08/2014 -