The teenage years represent a pivotal opportunity for acquiring lifelong healthy eating habits as young people forge their independence and shape their character and values. However, it’s also a period of significant physical growth and psycho-social development with the risk of manifesting in health-compromising eating behaviors such as fad diets, misuse of dietary supplements and meal intake irregularity which may precipitate onset of chronic conditions such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes.
While multiple factors influence weight gain ultimately an imbalance between energy consumed and energy expended is the primary determinant.
Paying attention to portion size, snacking, away-from-home meals, and consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is key.
What can a parent do to influence healthy eating habits?
Teenager’s Energy Needs
Specific needs should be determined by their degree of physical maturation and activity level. Males experience greater increases in height, weight and lean body mass and therefore have significantly greater caloric requirements than females.
As a rule of thumb males aged 14-18 years require around 3152 calories/day including 130 g of carbohydrates, 38 g of fiber and 52 g of protein.
Females of the same age require 2368 calories, 130 g of carbohydrates, 26 g fiber and 46 g protein.
Rapid physical growth and development during the teen years requires higher amounts of specific nutrients to support healthy progress.
- Half of peak bone mass is accrued during adolescence and 1300 g of calcium is required daily to develop dense bone mass and reduce the lifetime risk of fractures and osteoporosis. Dairy, canned salmon or sardines and calcium-fortified foods are good sources. Vitamin D3 and K2 are important to support calcium’s bone building activity.
- Rapid growth, increase in blood volume and onset of menses in females increase the need for iron. Recommended intake is 15 mg/day for males and 11 mg/day for females with actual rates depending on sexual maturation level. Red meat and spinach are good sources.
- Folate is critical to help form the body’s building blocks necessary for the significant increase in growth and development in the teen years. Folate adequacy is also important for later reproductive health and prevention of birth defects. Leafy greens and vegetables are good sources or folate-fortified foods to achieve 400 mcg/day.
- DHA and EPA found in essential Omega 3 fats (alpha-linolenic acid) are important for brain development and general health. Male and female teens are recommended to consume 1.6/1.1 g respectively. Good sources are fatty fish such as salmon, walnuts or flax seeds. Quality fish oil supplements are another option.
Few adolescents meet Dietary Guideline recommendations for fruit and vegetable, whole grains, dairy or fiber consumption – the backbone constituents of a healthy diet. Teens tend to over consume energy-dense foods deficient in critical vitamins and minerals. The following factors have been studied to help influence teens towards making healthier choices:
- Talk to your teens about the nutritional value of foods and how healthy choices can help them perform better at school and outside activities
- Prepare and shop for foods together. Research has shown how education and engagement nurture better eating habits
- Eat together – frequent family meals are associated with improved dietary intake among adolescents
- Move more – exercise helps burn calories, build strong bones and improve mood and social connection. Getting 60 minutes of activity a day can dramatically reduce the risk of weight gain
- Model good habits – limit your own screen time or take a technology vacation; eat healthy foods, keep a fruit bowl visible and stock the pantry with healthy choices to grab-and-go.
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