December 9, 2022

Teenagers have different nutritional needs than adults (1).

From puberty through early adulthood, the body is in a stage of rapid growth. To support proper growth and development, teens need a steady supply of calories and nutrients on a daily basis.

A diet high in nutritious foods can benefit their overall health, but a diet that lacks essential nutrients or provides inadequate calorie intake can directly affect cognitive performance, mood, metabolic health, and more.

Plus, less healthful dietary patterns established during adolescence can increase the risk of health complications later in life (2, 3).

However, following a nutritious diet that covers the body’s needs for macro- and micronutrients can be challenging for teens for many reasons, including food preferences and availability as well as social and parental influences (1).

Plus, teens can be heavily influenced by mass media, including social media, which may have negative effects on body image, dietary intake, and more.

Considering these factors, it’s easy to understand why many teens — as well as their parents and caregivers — are unsure what constitutes a healthy diet and which foods they should regularly eat.

This article explains healthy eating for teens, including nutrient recommendations, how to build healthy meals, eating tips, and more.

Adolescence is defined as the period between ages 10–19 years old. Early adolescence happens between the ages of 10–14, while late adolescence occurs between the ages of 15–19 (1).

During adolescence, the body goes through rapid growth, including changes in body composition as well as sexual and cognitive development.

Height, weight, muscle mass, and bone density increase significantly, and organs like the heart, brain, and liver grow in size. In fact, 50% of adult body weight is gained during adolescence (1).

Because adolescence is a long period of time that involves significant growth and development, it’s essential to provide the body with optimal nutrition by choosing nourishing foods and consuming enough calories on a daily basis.

Teens should learn the importance of a healthy diet and understand how to fuel themselves appropriately for many reasons, including:

  • If teenagers don’t take in adequate calories and nutrients, they can experience health complications like stunted growth, delayed puberty, menstrual irregularities, and other conditions (1).
  • An inadequate diet can negatively affect mood, energy levels, and athletic and academic performance (4, 5, 6).
  • Dietary habits established during adolescence can persist into adulthood, which can either positively or negatively affect health and disease risk.

Summary

Teenagers are in a stage of rapid growth, which is why it’s essential for teens to take in enough calories and nutrients on a daily basis. An inadequate diet can negatively affect mood, energy levels, academic performance, and more.

In order to support optimal growth and development, teens need to hit certain calorie and nutrient recommendations on a daily basis.

Nutrition needs depend on factors like age, sex, and activity levels.

Calories

A growing body needs a constant supply of energy. The foods you eat provide your body with calories from the three macronutrients; protein, carbohydrates, and fat (7).

Between the ages of 10–13, boys and girls have similar calorie needs. However, boys’ calorie needs increase from 14 on, while girls have the same calorie needs from ages 12–18.

Here’s a breakdown of the current estimated calorie recommendations for moderately active adolescents from the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (7).

Keep in mind that these are calorie estimations that give a general idea of how much kids should eat at specific ages. Calorie needs change based on factors like activity levels, so you may need more or fewer calories per day.

For example, teenage athletes participating in physically demanding sports may require up to 5,000 calories per day in order to maintain their body weight (8).

You may want to personally estimate your teen’s calorie intake if you’re worried that they aren’t consuming enough, but remember that it’s not generally appropriate for kids to count calories. It’s linked to disordered eating behaviors, especially in young people (9, 10).

Macronutrients

Protein, fat, and carbs are macronutrients, or nutrients your body needs in large amounts.

Getting enough of all three each day is important for growth and many other aspects of health (1).

The current protein recommendations for kids ages 10–18 range from .38–.43 grams per pound (0.85–.95 grams per kg), depending on sex and age.

However, some experts argue that current recommendations are based on outdated techniques and that many teens — like those who are highly active in sports — need much more protein than currently recommended (11).

After all, protein is required for proper growth and development, including muscle protein synthesis and skeletal growth (11).

Recent research suggests that teen athletes may need about .68 grams of protein per pound (around 1.5 g/kg)per day to replace amino acid loss and to support growth and development (6).

Keep in mind that protein needs are highest for 11–14-year-old females and 15–18-year-old males. However, it’s important that all teens, no matter their age, have a source of protein at every meal and snack (1).

In addition to protein, teens need adequate amounts of carbs and dietary fat. Like protein, needs for fat and carbs depend on factors like activity levels and sex.

In general, kids require between 45–65% of total calories from carbs, 25–35% of total calories from fat, and 10–35% of total calories from protein (7).

What’s more, it’s important for teens to get enough fiber in their diet from foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, and nuts. It’s recommended that teens take in between 22–34 grams of fiber per day, depending on age and sex (7).

Micronutrients

Teen’s diets are more likely to be low in certain micronutrients, including vitamins and minerals.

Teenage girls are more likely to be deficient in iron and iodine than teen boys. In fact, iron deficiency may affect up to 16% of teen girls in the US (12, 13).

Vitamin D deficiency is also common amongst teens. Studies suggest that the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in US teens ranges from 21–42%, depending on factors like geographic location, skin color, body weight, and diet (14).

Having overweight or obesity, having darker skin color, having a medical condition that impacts vitamin D absorption and utilization, and spending little time outdoors all appear linked with an increased risk of vitamin D deficiency (14, 15).

Vitamin D is vital to proper growth and development, so it’s important for teens to have their vitamin D levels tested to make sure their levels are optimal. Teens who are low or deficient in vitamin D may require treatment with supplements or high-dose injections (16).

In addition to the vitamins and minerals listed above, teenagers’ diets are more likely to be low in other nutrients, including zinc and calcium (17).

Teens, parents, and caregivers should keep in mind that nutrient deficiencies are more likely to occur in teens who follow restrictive diets like vegan diets as well as in teen athletes, teens with certain medical conditions, and teens with eating disorders (18, 19, 20, 21).

Summary

Needs for calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients depend on factors like sex, age, and activity levels. Teens are more likely to become deficient in several micronutrients, including iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamin D.

Fueling your body with the right foods can help you feel your best and support your energy levels so you can excel in school and participate in hobbies that you enjoy.

But many teens rely on quick, convenient foods to fill up, like fast food, sweets, and packaged snack foods.

Even though these foods can absolutely be enjoyed in moderation, it’s best for anyone’s diet — especially growing teens — to consist of mostly whole, nutrient-dense foods.

Which foods should be included in a healthy diet for teens?

Having consistent meals and snacks that provide healthy sources of protein, fat, and fiber-rich carbs is best for teens.

Here are some examples of healthy foods to include in a teen’s diet:

  • non-starchy vegetables: like broccoli, leafy greens, peppers, cauliflower, asparagus, carrots, and zucchini
  • starchy vegetables: like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash
  • fruits: like berries, pears, apples, citrus fruits, pineapple, grapes, and bananas
  • protein sources: like fish, eggs, lentils, chicken, and tofu
  • whole grains: like brown rice, oats, quinoa, whole grain bread, and barley
  • nuts and seeds: like almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and natural peanut butter
  • beans and lentils: like chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, and lentils
  • healthy fats: like olive oil, nut butters, avocados, egg yolks, full-fat yogurt, and cheese
  • dairy and non-dairy substitutes: like unsweetened yogurt, cheese, coconut milk, and cashew milk
  • healthy snack foods: like trail mix, hummus and vegetables, cottage cheese, and nut butter with fresh fruit

Foods like these should make up the majority of a nutritious teenage diet.

However, it’s perfectly healthy for teens to enjoy their favorite foods as well, even if they’re not considered the most nutritious.

After all, enjoying meals and snacks with friends and family is an important part of teenage social interaction and celebration.

How to build healthy meals and snacks

When putting together a meal or snack, it’s important to make it both nutritious and satisfying.

Choosing foods that contain protein, fat, and fiber-rich carb sources can help ensure teens are getting the nutrients they need for proper growth and can help keep them fueled so they can feel their best.

When planning a meal or snack, make sure it contains sources of protein, fat, and carbs. Protein is especially important for growing teens, so a source of protein should be added to every meal and snack.

Protein is the most filling of the three macronutrients. This means that protein can help you feel satisfied after eating and may help reduce the need for snacking (22).

Fiber is essential for digestive health and can also help you feel full, so prioritizing sources of fiber-rich carbs like whole grains, starchy vegetables, and beans is a smart choice (23).

Fat is also important for teen health. Fat is a source of energy for the body and is needed for growth and development, cellular function, the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients, and many other important bodily processes (24).

For example, a satisfying, well-rounded breakfast could be scrambled eggs for protein, sliced avocado for healthy fat, and some sautéed potatoes or fresh fruit for a carb source.

Getting enough fruits and vegetables is essential for teens. However, it’s normal for teens to be a bit picky about food choices, and they may not like all fruits and vegetables.

As long as teens are regularly eating vegetables and fruits, even if they’ll only eat a few different ones, that’s OK.

If a teen is exceptionally picky with their food choices, trying new foods often can help. Research shows that the more you’re exposed to foods like vegetables, the higher the chances are that you’ll learn to accept and like those foods (25).

Increasing diet variety by trying new foods can help ensure that teens are meeting their macro- and micronutrient needs.

Should teens avoid any foods?

It’s not necessary for teens to avoid any food except for in the case of allergies or medical conditions.

Still, certain foods and beverages should be limited in order to promote optimal health and reduce the risk of unwanted weight gain — as well as conditions like heart disease and even depression or anxiety.

For example, diets rich in sugary foods and drinks have been linked to an increased risk of many health conditions in teens, including (26, 27, 28, 29):

  • psychological stress
  • symptoms of anxiety
  • symptoms of depression
  • obesity
  • heart disease

This is why it’s essential for teens to limit foods and beverages high in added sugar like sugary breakfast cereal, sweetened yogurt, pastries, cookies, candy, soda, energy drinks, sweetened coffee beverages, and ice cream.

Additionally, refined grains like white bread and ultra-processed foods like fast food and some packaged snacks should be limited as well, as diets rich in these products are associated with a variety of health issues in teens, including metabolic syndrome (30, 31).

In general, it’s best for teens to consume a diet high in nutrient-dense foods, while enjoying foods like cookies, ice cream, and snack foods on occasion.

Summary

Balanced meals and snacks can support energy levels. Meals and snacks should provide protein, fat, and carbs. Although it’s not necessary for teens to avoid foods and beverages like sweets, it’s best to limit ultra-processed foods and added sugar.

Most teens have a lot on their plate, so nutrition can sometimes take a backseat after priorities like school, sports, and social lives.

But eating healthy doesn’t have to be difficult, nor does it have to exclude foods that are important to your teen’s cultural identity.

When it comes to diet, the most important thing for teens to focus on is fueling themselves regularly. Skipping meals isn’t healthy and can negatively affect mood, energy levels, and academic and sports performance (32).

Although needs vary, most teens need three meals per day plus a snack or two, depending on factors like activity levels and body size.

Keep in mind that teens who are extremely active, such as those who are participating in multiple sports, need many more calories per day and may require additional meals and snacks to maintain their weight.

In addition to eating regularly, choosing meals and snacks made up of nutritious ingredients that provide protein, fat, and carbs helps ensure teens are getting optimal amounts of macro- and micronutrients.

Here is a 3-day basic healthy meal plan for teens, plus some snack ideas.

Day 1

  • Breakfast: An egg omelet made with whole eggs, spinach, and cheddar cheese, served with fruit slices dipped in nut butter
  • Lunch: Avocado chicken salad sandwich made with whole-grain bread, served with vegetable sticks and hummus
  • Dinner: Stuffed peppers served over brown rice and a green salad
  • Snack: Trail mix

Day 2

  • Breakfast: A yogurt parfait made with unsweetened yogurt, mixed berries, low-sugar granola, and chopped almonds
  • Lunch: Hummus and veggie wrap served with fresh fruit slices
  • Dinner: Turkey burger served with sweet potato wedges and a mixed green salad
  • Snacks: Cherry tomato and mozzarella skewers, chocolate-covered peanut butter and banana bites

Day 3

  • Breakfast: High-protein banana oatmeal pancakes made with oats, eggs, and bananas and topped with chopped walnuts and berries
  • Lunch: Bento box filled with your choice of ingredients like hard-boiled eggs, edamame, turkey roll-ups, cheese slices, sliced veggies, hummus, fresh fruit, and crackers
  • Dinner: Black bean and veggie burritos served with salsa and guacamole
  • Snack: Homemade energy balls

In addition to eating regularly, it’s important that teens stay hydrated throughout the day by drinking plenty of water.

It’s recommended that teens limit sugar-sweetened beverages like soda and sweetened fruit drinks and stick to mostly water to meet their hydration needs (33).

Of course, teens have different dietary preferences and may decide to eat in a certain way that feels best for them. For example, some teens may want to eat a more plant-based diet for ethical or cultural reasons.

Dietary patterns like plant-based diets or Mediterranean-style diets can be healthy choices for teens, as long as the diet is well-rounded and provides the calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients necessary for optimal growth and development.

Keep in mind that restrictive diets that cut out entire food groups or restrict certain macronutrients or calories are generally inappropriate for teens.

Under specific circumstances, special diets like the ketogenic diet may be used to manage medical conditions like epilepsy. However, these diets should only be followed if prescribed and monitored by a medical professional (34).

Otherwise, it’s not appropriate or necessary for teens to follow restrictive diets. Doing so may harm their physical and mental health as well as negatively affect their growth and development.

Summary

Building healthy meals doesn’t have to be difficult. Choose balanced meals and snacks that provide your teen’s body with the nutrients it needs for optimal health.

Now more than ever, teens are under immense pressure to look a certain way.

Studies show that exposure to social media significantly increases the risk of body dissatisfaction and body image disorders in teens, which can harm physical and mental health (35).

Social media exposes teens to unrealistic body and beauty standards as well as dangerous “diet advice,” and teens are often tempted to mimic the supposed eating patterns of influencers, models, and celebrities.

It’s completely normal to want to fit in and look a certain way, but it’s critical to never put your health at risk in order to lose weight or change your body.

Your body will change as you grow and develop, and it’s normal to experience fluctuations in body weight during adolescence.

While focusing on fueling your body with nutritious foods and staying active can help keep you healthy and happy, concentrating too much on your food choices, body weight, or activity levels can negatively affect your physical and mental health (36, 37).

If you’re struggling with your self-esteem, body image, or body weight, or think that you may be overly concerned with calories or food choices, it’s important to tell a trusted healthcare provider or other adult. They can help you get the care that you need.

If you’re not comfortable telling an adult in your life, reach out to a hotline like Teenline for support and resources.

Summary

While focusing on fueling your body with nutritious foods and staying active can help you stay healthy and happy, it’s important to understand that being restrictive with your food choices, body weight, and exercise regimen can harm your health.

Teens require a steady supply of nutrients in order to feel their best.

A healthy diet that consists of regular meals and snacks made up of nutrient-dense foods helps supply teens with the nutrients they need for optimal health.

Plus, a nutritious diet can support academic and sports performance and decrease the risk of health conditions like anxiety, obesity, and heart disease.

Healthy habits like fueling up with a variety of nutritious foods, staying active, drinking enough water, and maintaining a positive relationship with your body can help keep you happy and healthy throughout your teenage years and into adulthood.