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Is Your Adolescent Getting Enough Nutrition?

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I often get asked by parents of teenagers what kind of vitamins they need to be giving their child.  Adolescents need plenty of vitamins and minerals during their growth spurt.  For girls, this is usually around age 10 or 11; for boys this usually occurs around age 12 or 13.  Nutritional and energy needs during this time are greater than at any other time of life, except during pregnancy.  In addition to the increased nutritional needs, adolescence is usually a time when the diet is at its worse.  In order to combat these two things, we need to consider how to alter the diets of your teenagers and add nutritional supplementation to meet the needs that your child has at this time in their lives.  In this post we’re going to go over the diets of your teenager and the next post we’ll discuss nutritional supplementation.

Adolescent nutrition is incredibly important because teenagers require healthy foods in order to grow and develop normally.  In addition, at this time in their life the groundwork may be laid for future problems with obesity and other diseases.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Guide Pyramid recommends how many servings a day an adolescent should eat of each food group, such as milk, vegetables, fruits, fats, and meats. By sticking closely to these guidelines, parents can ensure their teens get a well-balanced diet that supplies the vitamins and calories they need.  In addition, eating a balanced diet through adolescence will give teenagers the energy they need to stay physically active and will encourage good eating habits into adulthood.

In spite of recommendations, the quality of most teens’ food intake is not what it should be. Today, about 9 million U.S. children ages 6 to 19 are overweight.  This number has tripled since the 1980s. To help guide teens, their families, schools, and others in making healthy nutritional choices, the USDA guidelines suggest the following daily food selections:

  • 6-11 servings of breads, cereals, rice, and pasta
  • 3-5 servings of vegetables
  • 2-4 servings of fruit
  • 2-3 servings of dairy products
  • 2-3 servings of meat, fish, poultry, and legumes

Fats, oils, and sweets should be used only sparingly.  The USDA says only about 30% of daily calories should come from fat.  You can switch to low-fat or nonfat milk and other dairy products.  Eat more chicken and fish than red meats, and remove skin from poultry or trim fat from red meat.  When cooking, use low-fat cooking methods such as steaming, baking (without adding fats or oils), and broiling.  Avoid buying high fat desserts or snacks, such as snack chips and ice cream.

Calcium requirements are particularly important for teens, yet studies show that about 60% of teenage boys and more than 85% of teenage girls fail to get the recommended daily allowance of calcium. Calcium not only helps strengthen bones and make for healthier teeth, it also is important in the teen years to prevent future osteoporosis, a condition that causes weakened, less dense bones in later adult years. Teens should consume 1,200–1,500 mg of calcium per day. Milk, cheeses, tofu, white beans, yogurt, oranges, and salmon are all good sources of calcium.

Iron requirements are also very important for adolescent health and growth. Teens need 12–15 mg of iron per day. A variety of iron sources come from each food group. Some include:  peanut butter, whole grain bread, spinach, green beans and lima beans, strawberries, and beef, poultry, or fish.

For both calcium and iron, female teens need the higher recommended amount per day in order to build strong bone and muscle that will prevent against osteoporosis and other conditions associated with post-menopausal women. Teen males need at least the minimum requirement.

Generally, an active male teen needs approximately 2,800 calories per day. They should eat the higher suggested number of servings in each food group. Active female teens require 2,200 calories per day. They should eat the average number of suggested servings per food group. Teens that are not as active and are overweight should eat the lower number of suggested servings per food group and cut back on their daily ingestion of fats, oils, and sugars.  There are easy ways they can cut calories from their diet, which I go over in my Ways to Cut Calories post.

Help Your Teen Make Good Food Choices

Adolescents are becoming more independent and making many food decisions on their own.  They tend to eat more meals away from home, and they are heavily influenced by their peers.  Meal convenience is important to many teens, so they end up eating too many wrong types of foods such as soft drinks, fast food, and processed foods.  So encourage your teenagers to find out about nutrition for themselves.  Take their suggestions whenever possible regarding foods prepared at home.  Experiment with foods from other cultures.  If there are foods that you don’t want your teen to eat, avoid bringing them home.

It is important that teens eat three meals a day with healthy snacks.  Studies have shown that children and teens that skip breakfast have more trouble concentrating and do not perform as well in school.  Skipping breakfast in childhood and adolescence is related to later health problems such as obesity and heart disease.  Also, have several nutritious snack foods readily available since teens will often eat whatever is convenient.  Avoid stocking high sugar and refined carbohydrate foods in your cupboard.  Have more fresh fruits and vegetables available for snacks.  You can visit my 2 posts on healthy snack recipes for more ideas:  Healthy Snack Recipes, More Healthy Snack Recipes.

While the obesity problem in today’s youth can be blamed on a number of factors, including larger food portions, convenient salty snack foods, cheap and convenient fast food, and increased time spent sitting in front of the television instead of out being physically active. Teens are receiving and growing accustomed to less nutritional food choices.  Many experts say that getting teens up off the couch and stocking healthy snack choices helps.  Also, many sources can help parents find healthier alternatives to fast food meals for their families. Suggestions include cooking meals on weekends and freezing them for busy weekdays, and looking for cookbooks or online sources of quick and healthy recipes.

A Word of Caution

If your adolescent is overweight, you should be cautioned not to turn to fad diets. Many of the diets and diet products on the market have not been proven by clinical studies as effective in the long term for adults; they certainly have not been proven safe or effective as a solution to weight problems in children and teens. The best solution for obesity is a combination of activity, a balanced diet, and involvement of a trained professional as needed. Further, adolescents who worry too much about weight and appearance can develop social anxieties and eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Girls may feel pressure from peers to be thin and to limit what they eat.  Both boys and girls may diet to “make weight” or “look good” for a particular sporting or social event.  Over one third of American teenaged females have used such un-healthy methods as self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, diet pills, and water pills to control their weight.  So we need to try to encourage our youth to have a healthy weight, making food choices that are healthy and becoming involved in some type of physical activity.

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