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A healthy diet leads to good overall health, and establishes healthy habits.

Eating Healthy is Important, Even as a Teenager

Junk food is everywhere, and it's pretty tasty too. So why should your teen avoid a delicious HoneyBun or pack of Doritos when a salad isn't always as tasty? Well, artery-clogging plaques could start lining your teen's arteries long before they even have their first kiss or start thinking about college.

The American Heart Association reported that "the atherosclerotic process begins in youth, culminating in the risk factor–related development of vascular plaque in the third and fourth decades of life.”

Sadly, most teens are not eating enough fruits and vegetables. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “empty calories from added sugars and solid fats contribute to 40% of daily calories for children and adolescents aged 2–18 years." Soda, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, grain desserts, pizza, and whole milk, were the main culprits, contributing up to 50% of these empty calories. Yikes.

The great news is that good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle during the teen years can delay or prevent cardiovascular disease in adulthood. Here's how you can help your teenager ensure they're maintaining a healthy diet.

Short and Long-Term Benefits of Healthy Eating for Teens

Mastering nutrition can have a significant effect on wellness and quality of life.

Short term, eating well and staying hydrated can help improve mood and performance at school. Eating a healthy breakfast is associated with “improved cognitive function (especially memory), reduced absenteeism, and improved mood.” The CDC also recommends adequate hydration since it can improve cognitive function in children and adolescents.

Long term, eating right lowers the risk of developing health conditions such as:

  • High blood pressure.
  • Heart disease.
  • Type 2 diabetes.
  • Cancer.
  • Osteoporosis.
  • Iron deficiency.
  • Dental caries (cavities).
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Nutrients Important for Teens

Adolescence is such a weird time between puberty and adulthood. Teens learn to be increasingly more independent and spend more time away from home and parents. Keep an eye on their eating habits to make sure your teen is getting enough of these nutrients that support healthy development:

  • Calcium is needed for strong bones and teeth. You can get calcium from milk, yogurt, cheese, fortified soy, or tofu.
  • Vitamin D is necessary for healthy bones. You can find it in oranges, tuna, and milk.
  • Potassium helps to lower blood pressure. It’s found in bananas, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, broccoli, and spinach.
  • Fiber helps provide satiety and improves gut health. Make sure to incorporate beans, celery, whole grain cereals, nuts, seeds, and peas into your meals.
  • Protein is needed for growth, building tissue, cells, and muscle, making hormones and antibodies. Eat lean meats, fish, nuts and seeds, peas and beans, peanut butter, eggs, lentils, and tofu for protein.
  • Iron is needed for growth and development. Iron is an essential mineral used by red blood cells, which transport oxygen around the body. It’s found in red meat, seafood, beans, peas, and dark green leafy vegetables. You can help your body absorb the iron from foods by eating vitamin C-rich foods at the same time, like citrus, pepper, tomatoes, broccoli, or melon. Avoid eating calcium and iron-rich foods at the same time as calcium prevents the absorption of iron.

An Easy, Healthy, and Practical Diet Plan for Teens

Counting calories can be tedious, weighing foods can be impractical, and crash diets can lead to messed-up eating and a poor self-image. But a simple, practical eating strategy will empower teens to make the right choices at home, at school, and even at the drive-thru. Here's how it works. At breakfast, lunch, dinner, and both snack times, follow the MyPlate plan using these simple steps:

  • Fruits: Fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables. Apples, watermelon, pineapple, grapes, peaches, strawberries, and blueberries are great choices.
  • Vegetables: Vary your veggies — carrots, celery, sweet peppers, baby spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, arugula, kale, and string beans are delicious and satisfying.
  • Protein: Vary your protein routine — lean protein sources like fish, chicken, tofu, and soy pack a nutritional punch. Red meats are good sources of iron but tend to be higher in fat.
  • Grains: Make half your grains whole grains — for example, brown rice, quinoa, couscous, whole grain cereals, and pasta.
  • Dairy: Move to low-fat or fat-free dairy milk or yogurt (or lactose-free dairy or fortified soy versions).
  • Beverages: Choose drinks with less added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium.

For the first time, My.Gov has recommendations, especially for Teens. You can also get a personalized food plan and explore delicious recipes.

Foods To Avoid

Make sure to limit high-calorie, low nutrient foods like soda, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, grain desserts, and pizza. When choosing cookies, candy, chips, fries, and frozen desserts, look for ones with higher fiber and protein contents. Try fresh fruit, nuts, seeds, or yogurt instead of sugary drinks like soda, energy drinks, fruit juices, and sweetened tea.

Nutrition and Wellness Checklist

Here’s a checklist that you can share with your teen to help them stay on track.

  • Meal prep. Pack or portion a healthy breakfast, snacks, and a healthy lunch each night. Try to avoid soda, chips, and candy.
  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
  • Eat a rainbow. Vary your fruits and vegetables — the more colors on the plate, the better!
  • Make half of your grains whole grains.
  • Drink water.
  • Move to low-fat or fat-free dairy milk or yogurt (or lactose-free options).
  • Choose foods and beverages with less added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium.
  • Learn to cook with family or friends.
  • Choose a bedtime and stick to it. Recharge and rejuvenate your body and mind by getting 8-10 hours of sleep every night.
  • Move as much as you can. Consider walking or biking to school, or participating in physical activities, if it is safe. Find a group sport that you enjoy. Take a dance break between classes or create a habit of daily exercise.