Teen Nutrition: Helping Teens Make Healthy Food Choices
As the typical teenager's life fills up with friends, sports and homework, it seems like erratic eating habits come along for the ride. But teenagers are going through a stage of rapid growth and development, so changes in eating make sense. What's important is encouraging your teen to make nutritious food choices in this crucial part of their life.
What can you do to improve the health of your teenager?
Teens have the freedom to make their own choices, they eat out more, visit fast food restaurants more often, and get their lunches from school vending machines.
Expecting teenagers to bring a brown bag lunch to school when their friends are eating at fast food restaurants, or to snack only on carrot sticks when everyone else is eating chips, probably is not realistic.
With teenagers, it works best to teach them how to make better choices (even if they are not perfect choices) whether they are eating at home, at school or in restaurants.
Teenagers of all ethnicities and social classes are at risk for getting too much and too little, all at once. Teens tend to eat too much fat, sugar and salt, and too few fruits, vegetables and dairy foods, according to the California Department of Public Health, putting them at risk of iron-deficiency anemia and inadequate calcium intake (1).
Research confirms that teens aren't getting enough calcium, affecting their ability to build strong bones for a lifetime. By age 30, bones have reached peak mass, after which we no longer build more bone, we just maintain what we have, so it's important that teens build strong bones for the rest of their lives (2).
Maintaining normal weight is also important during the teenage years since obesity often leads to type-2 diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Being obese as a teenager also increases the risk of developing these diseases as an adult.
For adults as well as children, the best way to treat and prevent these problems is a combination of healthy diet and exercise. In addition, positive eating patterns fostered during the teen years are very likely to last a lifetime.
Tips for Parents
Teach teenagers that eating "healthier" doesn't mean giving up their favorite foods altogether. For many teenagers, it means cutting down on portion size and adding foods with nutritional value to their diet - having a smaller bag of chips along with an apple or switching from higher fat chips to pretzels, for example.
Acknowledge that teenagers will eat fast food, yet encourage buying the smallest portion sizes available or sharing a super-sized meal with a friend. Also, encourage teenagers to make beverage choices that are nutritious, opting for milk or 100 percent juice instead of soda.
Model good behavior - eat well, exhibit a healthy attitude toward food, display a good body image and lead an active lifestyle yourself! It'll benefit both you and your teen.
Encourage nutrition label reading. Emphasize key teen nutrients that may be in short supply - such as calcium and iron. Starting the day with a bowl of fortified cereal with milk is a great way for teens to get more calcium and iron.
Remind teenagers to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. Skipping meals does not help with weight loss and it might keep them from getting all the nutrients they need.
Encourage teenagers to choose an activity they enjoy and to exercise for 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week.
At times, it may be hard to believe that teenagers will grow up into adults who will make good decisions about their nutrition and activity choices; but your nutrition education efforts will go a long way toward helping them to do just that.
California Nutrition and Physical Activity Guidelines for Adolescents, 2012. In: California Department of Public Health, Accessed 2012.
Institute of Medicine, Committee to Review Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin D and Calcium. Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D
: The National Academies Press;