Healthy Diet for Adolescents (Ages 12-18)
A Guide for Parents and Caregivers
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 him 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.
In 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 being overweight and obese. Make sure your teen gets the amount of calories they need by:
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for your teen. About 45%-65% of his 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 (eg, canola and olive oil), nuts, avocados, olives, and fatty fish (eg, 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 her 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:
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 him to choose whole grains over refined grains, and encourage him 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 MyPlate. 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 the MyPlate website for more individualized recommendations.
Healthy Eating Ideas
Encourage your teen to start the day off with breakfast. Studies show that kids learn better when fueled with breakfast, yet most teens 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:
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:
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
American Dietetic Association
Canada's Food Guide
Dietitians of Canada
ChooseMyPlate.gov. United States Department of Agriculture, ChooseMyPlate.gov website. Available at: http://www.mypyramid.gov . Updated June 14, 2011. Accessed June 20, 2011.
Dietary guidelines for Americans 2005. US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: http://www.health.... . Accessed January 3, 2010.
Stang J, Story M, eds. Guidelines for Adolescent Nutrition Services. Minneapolis, MN: Center for Leadership, Education, and Training in Maternal and Teen Nutrition; 2005.
Last reviewed March 2013 by Dianne Scheinberg Rishikof MS, RD, LDN