An apple surrounded by donuts.
While processed foods give teenagers the calories they need, they lack nutritional value.

Diets for Teens

During adolescence, teenagers quickly undergo changes to their bodies. As a teen’s body grows and develops, they need extra nutrients to support good bone growth and healthy tissue development. It can be tempting to throw whatever food is available together to feed a hungry teenager. However, not all food sources are created equal, and certain diets for teens can be harmful or beneficial.

For example, heavily processed food, empty calories and saturated fats may supply calories without the vital nutrients that a teenager needs. Not eating the proper diet during adolescence can lead to poor tissue development, unhealthy eating habits and chronic disease.

Calories for Teens

Adolescents need an increase in calories to provide for the teen growth spurt. The teen years require more calories than any other period of life. Teens who are tall, larger, or who participate in many physical activities need more calories than other teens. Teen girls tend to consume 25% percent fewer calories than boys, thus they are more likely to have nutritional deficiencies.

  • Adolescent boys need a daily average of 2,800 calories.
  • Adolescent girls need a daily average of 2,200 calories.

Adolescent Nutrient Requirements

The human body uses protein, carbohydrates and fats as a source of energy, and food serves as the body's energy source. Of these sources, U.S. adolescents require protein the least because the western diet provides twice as much protein as needed. Protein is necessary to build muscle and tissues, but most teens in the U.S. already receive more than enough.

A few examples of protein sources include:

  • Beef.
  • Pork.
  • Poultry.
  • Eggs
  • Legumes.
  • Cheese.

Carbohydrates might have a bad reputation for causing weight gain and diabetes, but they are necessary for life. Carbohydrates are the body’s primary fuel source and are found in plants, primarily grains and starches. Although the body needs carbohydrates for energy, not every kind of carbohydrate benefits the body.

Adolescents — and humans in general — need more complex carbohydrates than simple carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates provide sustained and longer lasting energy. Simple carbohydrates, on the other hand, are sugar sources like table sugar and fructose. Simple sugar can cause weight gain and diabetes, and it is unfortunately added to much of the processed food we eat.

Sugary sodas, packaged pastries and candies all contain simple carbohydrates. Therefore, minimal consumption of these types of food is advised. Most teens need about 50% to 60% of their nutritional intake as carbs, and the best sources of complex carbohydrates are in whole grains and vegetables.

Fat should account for about 30% of a teen’s caloric intake. Like carbohydrates, fats are not created equal. Some fats are better than others. Saturated fats (usually animal fats) contain cholesterol.

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Cholesterol is a waxy substance that can accumulate in arteries and lead to heart disease. A cholesterol-heavy diet not only leads to weight gain — even in teenagers — but it can also lead to cardiovascular disease later in life. Monounsaturated fats are beneficial for humans and are the healthiest kinds of fats. These fats are found in olive oil, nuts, avocados and canola oil. An adolescent’s diet should include lean protein with little saturated fats and healthy monounsaturated fats.

A well-rounded diet should provide an adequate amount of the essential vitamins and minerals necessary for a teen. However, some teens may need a supplement of calcium, vitamin D, iron and zinc. It’s best to consult with a doctor or healthcare professional before initiating any supplementation.
Processed Foods

Pre-packaged, fast foods and processed foods are convenient, but they are not nutritionally well-balanced. A teen’s busy schedule and social life might expose them to a lot of junk food and processed food, but they should be encouraged to keep their intake to a minimum. If your family eats a lot of packaged and processed foods, get into the habit of choosing more healthy options by reading the food labels.

Diets and Teenagers

In 2018, the CDC reported the prevalence of obesity in 12 to 18-year-olds as 21.2%. Due to the levels of obesity in the country, pediatricians are especially aware of concerns regarding obesity. A well-balanced diet and regular exercise are excellent ways to slowly lose and maintain weight.

Fad diets may be popular. They can even lead to quick and temporary weight loss, but they can be detrimental for teens. Although adolescents can follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, it is important to ensure that they obtain enough healthy fats and proteins from plant sources. Caregivers should consult with a doctor before starting any special diets for a teen.

Establishing a balanced approach to eating is critical for lifelong health, and healthy eating starts at home.