If teenagers feel like everybody's trying to tell them what they should and shouldn't eat, they're probably right, and for good reason: many teenagers rely on junk food or don't eat regular, balanced meals, despite all of the energy demanded by their rapidly growing bodies. But healthy eating for teenagers doesn't have to mean eating bland, boring foods. Parents trying to help their teens eat a healthy diet should focus on highly nutritious meals and snacks that are quick and easy to prepare.
Poor eating habits in teens
Adolescents are always on the go, between school, hanging out with friends and taking part in sports and other activities. But many skip meals, especially breakfast, depriving their bodies of critical nutrients that they need in order to grow into healthy adults. Eating breakfast every day can boost teens' metabolism, helping them maintain a healthy weight, balance their moods and perform better in school.
And then, of course, there's the bad eating habit that teens are best known for: consuming too much junk food. Colorful, well-marketed, high-fat foods with low nutritional value are all too tempting, especially when they come in convenient serving sizes that are easy to throw into a backpack. Studies have shown that teenagers are also drinking more soft drinks than ever before, which could lead to a host of health problems including osteoporosis and hypertension.
Meeting teens' special dietary needs
Teenagers need more calories and higher amounts of certain nutrients than children and adults. Girls require approximately 2,200 calories per day, while boys need 2,500-2,900. Protein in the form of lean meats, fish, poultry, soy, beans, nuts/seeds and eggs should account for 15 percent to 20 percent of their daily calories. Calcium is particularly crucial, as nearly half of all skeletal growth occurs during adolescence. Teenagers should aim for 1,300 milligrams of calcium per day with at least three 1-cup equivalents of low-fat dairy products per day including yogurt, cheddar cheese and milk. Total fat should make up no more than 30 percent of daily calories, and trans fats – found in baked goods, snack foods and fried foods – should be limited.
Healthy eating for teenagers should also include vitamin D, which ensures proper absorption of calcium, as well as iron and B vitamins. Teenage girls are particularly susceptible to anemia due to iron deficiency; iron-rich foods include meats, pulses, green vegetables and fortified cereals. B vitamins like thiamin, riboflavin and niacin are required to maintain energy levels and are present in whole grains, meat, potatoes, lentils and bananas. See a full chart of teenagers' nutrient needs at World's Healthiest Foods.
Making healthy food fun and easy
One of the ways adolescents assert their new-found independence is to make more of their own dietary choices, but there are still some ways in which parents can ensure healthy eating for teenagers. Teens aren't likely to be swayed by lectures about nutrition, but they will often grab whatever quick, appetizing foods that parents make available to them. Pre-made healthy sandwiches that are all ready to go in the refrigerator when a teen gets home from school can reduce fast-food temptation while string cheese, all-natural fruit leather, bagged baby carrots, bean burritos and whole-wheat English muffins are easy to take on the go.
Make trail mix more enticing by adding some chocolate chips, or keep a pitcher of fruit and yogurt-filled smoothies in the fridge. Satisfy savory cravings with hummus or black bean dip with veggies and wheat pita chips or popcorn sprinkled with parmesan cheese. Fun breakfasts like 'waffle sandwiches' made with peanut butter and fruit or breakfast burritos spiced up with salsa can help teens start the day off right.
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