Healthy eating: What teenagers need
Discover the dietary essentials teenagers need to stay happy and healthy, plus useful tips to encourage a positive relationship with food
With an increasing social media presence, our teenagers are placed under more pressure than ever before and especially so when it comes to body image and food. The teen years mark the start of independence but when it comes to food, this can work for or against achieving a healthy, balanced diet.
What is a balanced diet for teenagers?
This decade is a time of great adjustment – changes in body shape and hormone levels place extra demands on nutrition.
While the amount of energy a teenager needs is important, so too is the balance of their diet, which should include:
- Protein, such as meat, fish (including the oily variety), eggs, beans and pulses
- Fruit and vegetables, with a minimum of five portions each day
- Starchy carbs like potatoes, bread, pasta and rice – opting for wholegrain versions where possible
- Milk, dairy or fortified plant-based alternatives
- Some fats and oils
Although popular, soft drinks, sweets, confectionery, biscuits, sugary pastries and desserts are high in added ‘free sugars’ and often contain poor quality fats. Regardless of our age we should only enjoy these foods once in a while.
How can I be sure my teen eats well?
Teenagers have a lot to contend with – exams, social stress, exposure to unrealistic body shapes, fast food, alcohol and technology, not to mention the whirlwind of hormones, emotions and body changes that play havoc with their confidence and well-being. Nutritionally, they have an increased need for energy, protein and healthy fats as well as vitamins and minerals.
Despite this, a lot of the time, your teenager will just want to graze or grab a quick snack rather than eat a proper meal.
One answer to this is to make sure there's plenty of healthy choices at hand – cheese and crackers, toast with nut butter, yogurt with fruit and some good quality dark chocolate, as well as plenty of options that can be put together in no more than 15 minutes.
What about anxiety over weight and body shape?
The teen years can trigger anxieties around food, especially those foods that are perceived to be fattening. Try not to enforce the view that a single food is 'good' or 'bad’, or that food is a reward or treat, because this may create an emotional association to that food. Instead stay positive about all food and help them build their confidence by introducing new ingredients and encouraging them to prepare food and cook for themselves and the rest of the family.
If teens are restricting calories, eliminating major food groups or cutting their fat, carb or protein intake, this may have an adverse effect on their future fertility and bone health. If you think your teen may have an unhealthy relationship with food, refer to your GP as soon as you can. For more information on eating disorders, visit the NHS website.
What nutrients may be low in a teen diet?
Although most people should be able to get all the iron they need from a varied, balanced diet, iron deficiency is common, and particularly so among menstruating girls. Rapid growth, coupled with lifestyle and poor dietary choices, may result in iron-deficiency anaemia which can make teens look and feel tired, experience poor concentration and affect mental and physical development. Iron-rich foods include lean red meat, eggs, lentils, fortified breakfast cereals, dried apricots, figs, nuts, spinach, kale, broccoli, watercress, oats and seeds.
If you suspect iron deficiency, refer to your GP as they can perform a simple blood test to confirm whether this is the case.
My teen has acne, can diet help?
The condition of our skin is influenced by a number of factors, with diet and lifestyle playing a part. Unsightly spots and redness can be distressing at any age but especially so when you are a teenager. Acne is common at this age and is linked to changes in hormone levels at puberty.
The good news is diet can really help. Eating plenty of colourful fruit and vegetables, getting adequate protein from lean meats, fish, eggs, beans and pulses, and choosing healthy fats, like the omega-3 fatty acids in oily fish, nuts and seeds, can make a huge difference. Combine this with eliminating junk food, as well as high-sugar foods.
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Find out what to eat for glowing, radiant skin.
What about drinks?
Even mild dehydration can affect mood, concentration and make skin look dry and tired. Experts recommend we drink six to eight glasses of hydrating fluids a day. All fluids count towards this daily allowance, but water is best.
In the UK, nearly a third (29 per cent) of a teenager’s ‘free sugar’ comes from fizzy drinks, like cola. These should really be kept to a minimum because they are a major source of these added sugars. Consuming too many of these poses various health risks including weight gain and tooth decay.
Another popular choice for this age group are ‘energy’ drinks, so-called because of their stimulating caffeine levels. While it may be the case that low doses of caffeine may increase alertness and sharpen your memory, at higher doses – such as that found in ‘energy drinks’ – it may lead to anxiety and sleep disruption.
Don’t forget activity
Teenagers today spend more time engaged in sedentary activities, typically involving electronic media. Ideally teenagers should be doing at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous intensity exercise each day. Keeping active helps produce endorphins that lift mood, increase metabolism and may improve sleep.
Get inspired with these nourishing meals that the whole family will want to eat:
Find more teen-friendly recipes:
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What are your experiences of feeding teenagers? We'd love to hear your thoughts, ideas and suggestions...
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