Proper Nutrition for Teenagers
Most adults, whether through experience or hearsay, have learned that kids can be picky eaters. What’s less well known is how finicky teens can be. Worse yet, teens spend a great deal of time outside the home, and because of it find opportunities to eat a great many things that their parents can’t control. Some even have the means to buy their own “food” (we use the term loosely here). And with adulthood on the horizon, it’s more important than ever to teach them good habits.
The two questions that remain are “what habits?” and “how?”
As a parent, you’ve got more than enough on your plate (pun may-or-may-not-be intended), so finding the time and the energy to be a stickler about nutrition can be hard. Rest assured, though, that teaching your young adult how to eat healthy is one of the best ways to ensure their continued safety after they leave the home (considering heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S.). Let’s talk about how to do it.
The Basics of Nutrition
There’s been a lot of debate about nutrition in the last five or six decades, both between us normal people and the medical/science professionals that make recommendations. For the experts, though, there seems to be a general consensus that the old food pyramid (outdated as it is) had it pretty close. A healthy diet is achieved by focusing on whole grains and vegetables, and supplementing those two with fruits, lean meats, and low-fat dairy.
In fact, science has found that it’s the quality of what you eat, not the number of calories that matters when it comes to unhealthy weight gain and food-related health difficulties—a fact that may be a shock to many of us “adults” who have tried all number of strategies for eating “healthy.”
Why Teenagers Are Different
What separates teenagers from the rest of humanity, however (among other things), is the sheer volume their bodies require during adolescence. Because of all of the growth and change that happens during the teen years, as well as all of the physical activity they tend to take part in, our rapidly maturing little saplings tend to need a lot more food than either those who have exited or have yet to enter adolescence.
Here are some numbers to give you perspective. Most nutritional guidelines (like you might find on the labels of the food you buy) estimate 2,000 calories a day for the average adult diet. Teenage girls need between 1,600 and 2,200 calories a day at 13, and between 1,800 and 2,400 by 18.
Boys are even worse (which is why they have a reputation as human garbage disposals): teenage boys start at a range of 2,000 to 2,600 at 13, and balloon out to between 2,400 and a whopping 3,200 by the time they graduate.
Where they get these calories from is very important, as stated above. You’re looking to make sure 50-60% of their caloric intake is from complex carbohydrates—preferably whole grains like whole wheat. Beyond that, the diet should focus on plentiful vegetables, fruits, and adequate amounts of lean meats, with a limit on red meat consumption.
Tips for Promoting Healthy Eating
Now, you’ve probably absorbed a lot of that information over the years, by cultural osmosis if nothing else. We all know veggies are good for us, and whole wheat is better than refined grains. So you’ve likely been trying to encourage your walking embodiment of “what’s for dinner?” to eat good things.
Odds are, though, you’ve run into the same problems as countless parents: teens are more mobile than kids, so if they don’t like what you give them, they’ll get what they want somewhere else. That doesn’t mean you should give up, though. It just means you need to get a little creative. In fact, some of the dirty little tricks you used during their childhood will likely come in handy when trying to get them to choke down their leafy greens. Here are some of our favorite tips:
- Keep healthier snacks on hand—when snack time comes (and boy, does it ever), your teen is likely to reach for the most convenient thing available. So make sure there’s some cut up fruit or baby carrots for them to munch on instead of chips or cookies.
- Cover up what you can—often, teens aren’t eating veggies and other healthy foods because they don’t like the flavor or texture. Try slipping some healthy ingredients into foods they like so they don’t notice. Do they like shakes/smoothies? Add some spinach. Is mac and cheese their favorite? Add some peas and corn. They’ll be wiser to your tricks than when they were little, but then again you want them to know so they keep up the habit anyway.
- Make some popsicles—just like with the smoothie trick, you can get away with quite a lot if it tastes similar to a dessert or candy. Normal popsicles are over-sweetened and lack additional nutrients, but not so if you make them out of 100% fruit juice/smoothies/etc. You’ll be surprised how many your teens will eat, especially on hot days.
- Invite them to help plan and cook meals—since teens tend to do a better job at following orders when they feel they have a choice in the matter, give them a chance to add their two cents and pitch in.
Lastly, remember that they follow your example. If they see you being judicious with your sweet treats, they will be more likely to do the same. After all, you want to be around to remind them to eat their broccoli well into grandparenthood. It’s the most surefire way to ensure you get those “good grief, Mom/Dad” groans for years to come.
For a detailed breakdown of different vitamins and their effect on health and body function, take a look at What Vitamins Should I Be Taking?.