As an age group, teenagers have their own specific nutritional needs, which are different to both younger children and adults. Through the ages of 13–19 years, they will experience changes in brain development, growth and hormones and have a higher metabolic rate, accompanied by a growing appetite, especially in teenage boys. These changes drive an increased need for good nutrition. with key nutrients such as iron and calcium being particularly important.
Good food choices can play an important role in helping your child to thrive and be at their best during this period of time, but it can be a challenge to meet these nutritional requirements, due to increasing levels of independence, busy lifestyles, changing tastes and beliefs and behaviour changes. Read on to find out how you can support your teenager’s nutrition.
Growing independence The teenage years are a time of growing independence, with more time spent away from the family home and an increase in the importance of external influences such as friends and social media. It is also a time where parents may gradually lose control of what their children eat and there may be stages of rebellion, when children refuse to eat healthier foods such as fruit and vegetables, preferring processed and fast food options.
Coupled with this is the situation, where parents find they have very little say in what teens eat at school. Packed lunches are often refused by the child and secondary school meals are notoriously unhealthy. Long canteen queues exacerbate the situation with many children opting for low nutrient, but quick options such as pizza topped off with a sugary drink and cookie, leaving more break time to be with friends.
Setting up healthy habits A balanced approach to eating is crucial at this stage of life. You can talk to your teen about adopting the 80/20 rule, where the majority of their food intake i.e., 80% of the food they eat is nutritious, leaving 20% for occasional indulgences.
This approach will help to avoid arguments, give your teen an element of control in their food choices and avoid creating cravings and an unhealthy relationship with food, by ruling out treats. The idea isn’t to be perfect, but rather to build healthy habits that will last a lifetime.
Nutritious meals can be provided at home and if your teenager agrees, a healthy packed lunch can replace less nutritious school dinners. Making snacks such as fruit, yogurt, nuts, cheese, homemade flapjacks, boiled eggs, avocados, hummus and and other healthy options readily available at home is essential for keeping on top of massive hunger levels, fuelled by high metabolic rates. Teenage boys especially can swallow up huge amounts of food, particularly upon their return from school, before even thinking about their dinner. Couple this with the increasingly popular activity of going to the gym and the goal of increasing muscle mass in boys and you’ll have to be prepared to stock up on large quantities of nutritious protein and carbohydrate foods.
Introducing teenagers to legumes such as cannelloni beans and chickpeas can be a helpful addition to their diet due to their high protein content which can reduce a reliance on meat and boost plant food intake. Teaching your child to cook will help to promote their independence in the kitchen and enable them to prepare healthier food choices. Start off with simple techniques such as how to chop and peel vegetables and basic recipes such a scrambled eggs, porridge and smoothies and move onto straight forward meals such as grilled chicken, rice and steamed vegetables and foods that they enjoy e.g., chicken fajitas and spaghetti bolognese. With time and practice, their confidence in the kitchen will grow, as will their interest in food and knowledge about what they are putting into their body.
Specific nutritional needs In terms of their specific nutritional needs, teenagers have a high need for key nutrients such as calcium, iron and protein, but it is recognised that a proportion of teenagers have a low intake across a range of nutrients. Here are some pointers on three areas of teen health that can be supported with good nutrition.
Bone building Calcium intake is very important for your child whilst their bones are growing. When there is not enough calcium in the diet, the body takes calcium from the bones thereby reducing bone density. For this reason, it is important to consume enough calcium every day.
The reference nutrient intake for a teenage boy is 1000 mg of calcium per day, whilst a teenage girl requires 800 mg (BDA, 2022). The body also needs enough vitamin D to be able to absorb calcium and requires other bone-building nutrients such as magnesium and vitamin K2.
Eating a good supply of green leafy vegetables alongside beans, nuts and dairy foods will normally provide adequate levels. When, however, cow’s milk is absent from the diet or a child is vegetarian, more attention needs to be paid to calcium intake, an area that a nutritional therapist can assist with. It interesting to note that increased calcium intake can also help with growing pains.
Acne Teenage acne can be caused by a surge in hormones and involves overactive oil glands in the skin and a build-up of sebum, plus dead skin cells and bacteria leading to inflamed and blocked pores. Alongside a good skin care routine, nutrition can play a big part in bringing about relief with a range of options to consider from encouraging your teen to eat more whole foods such as fruit, vegetables and wholegrains, to introducing carefully chosen supplements, including probiotics to support gut health, which a nutritional therapist can advise upon.
Everybody starts from a different baseline and what works for one person may not work for another, but there are some key areas to tackle such as reducing fizzy drinks and sugary foods, eating healthy fats containing omega 3 such as oily fish and walnuts, increasing zinc intake through food rich sources such as chicken, seafood and pumpkin seeds, and ensuring good hydration by drinking 1.5-2 litres of water at regular intervals across the day.
Exercising on top of good nutrition will be of benefit, encouraging blood flow and the delivery of nutrients to the skin and bringing about sweating to aid detoxification.
In some cases, it may be advisable to temporarily eliminate cow’s milk. A nutritional therapist can advise on the elimination process and ensure adequate levels of calcium and iodine are still present in the diet, as dairy foods are good sources of these nutrients.
Sleep With a high requirement for sleep, the late nights spent chatting or playing with friends online can result in sleep deprivation and prove to a bone of contention between parents and teens. As a guide, 13-16 year old's require a minimum of nine hours sleep, whilst older children need a minimum of eight hours (NHS, 2022). If sleep-deprived, hunger levels can increase alongside the development of cravings for carbohydrates, including sugary foods, which may drive weight gain.
Ensuring your child eats nutritious meals as well as looking at their sleep routine can help to improve sleep quality and thereby raise energy levels and improve concentration levels and learning. Aim to include regular servings of green leafy vegetables to provide magnesium and calcium, increase omega 3 rich foods such as oily fish and chia seeds, ensure evening meals contain carbohydrate foods and top this off with high tryptophan foods such as cottage cheese, porridge, chicken and turkey.
It’s also critical that stimulatory foods such as caffeinated drinks and sugary foods are avoided close to bedtime. Teens should aim to stop eating a couple of hours before bedtime to allow their bodies to concentrate on healing and repair and avoid night-time trips to the toilet by not drinking for an hour before sleep.