Good nutrition is especially important during adolescence. As the body is rapidly growing and changing, it is important to supply teens with adequate nutrients to support their development.

A healthy diet is important at any age, but it is particularly important for teens.

As the body is developing during adolescence, it is vital that teens consume a healthy and balanced diet to ensure they meet their energy and nutrition requirements.

This article explores the importance of nutrition for teens, which nutrients are important, what to eat, what foods to avoid, helpful tips and habits for healthy eating, and avoiding disordered eating.

Good nutrition is essential for keeping people healthy, and it is critical for growth and development.

As teens grow and become more responsible for decisions about their body and health, it is important for them to understand how their body works and what fuel it requires.

After infancy, adolescence is the second largest period of growth the body experiences.

As teens are growing and undergoing puberty, their bodies require more energy and nutrients to support this growth and development. As such, it is likely that their appetite will significantly increase.

Nutrition is not only important for supporting the body during growth, but also for supporting brain function.

Evidence suggests that eating a healthy breakfast and staying adequately hydrated may help academic performance by improving cognitive function, reducing absenteeism, and boosting mood.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney diseases (NIDDK), important nutrients for teens include:

  • Iron: This helps the body grow and is vital for energy and focus, the immune system, and regulation of body temperature.
  • Protein: Protein is also vital for growth as the body uses it to build and repair cells and tissues. It is a major component of the skin, muscle, bone, organs, hair, and nails.
  • Calcium: This helps to build and maintain strong bones and teeth. Calcium is also necessary for brain health, muscle movement, and cardiovascular function.
  • Vitamin D: This helps keep bones and teeth healthy. It also plays a role in protecting against a range of diseases and conditions.
  • Potassium: This can help lower blood pressure. It is vital for regulating fluid balance and controlling the electrical activity of the heart and other muscles.
  • Fiber: Fiber helps keep people regular and feel full. It is crucial for keeping the gut healthy and can reduce the risk of chronic health conditions.

The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) also list some important vitamins and minerals during adolescence, such as:

A healthy diet typically involves consuming varied, balanced, and nutrient-dense foods. It may also involve replacing foods high in sugars, salts, and unhealthy fats with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat protein foods, and fat-free or low fat dairy options.

The World Health Organization (WHO) note that essential nutrients are crucial to supporting health.

People typically split essential nutrients into micronutrients and macronutrients.

Macronutrients include proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.

The United States Department of Agriculture recommend that for total calories per day, teens should try to consume roughly 45–65% carbs, 25–35% fats, and 10–30% protein. Foods to eat from these groups may include:

  • proteins, such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, beans, peas, soy, nuts, and seeds
  • carbs, such as whole-grain bread, brown rice, fruits and vegetables, and whole-grain pasta
  • fats, such as avocados, olives, nuts, seeds, eggs, fatty fish, and yogurt

A person can typically consume enough micronutrients from having a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, grains, and dairy.

It is not advisable for people to simply avoid particular foods, but rather to moderate their intake of certain foods.

The NIDDK suggest trying to limit the intake of:

  • fast food
  • processed food
  • food with added sugars
  • foods containing unhealthy fat
  • food with excessive salt

For example, this may include foods such as:

  • candy
  • cookies
  • frozen desserts
  • chips
  • fries
  • fried chicken
  • cheeseburgers
  • sodas

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that teens struggle more than any other age group to adhere to dietary guidelines.

By learning healthy eating habits during adolescence, people are more likely to carry on with them into adulthood.

Many teens may miss meals such as breakfast, but it is important that they do not skip meals.

The BNF recommend always trying to eat three meals a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. To help with this, teens can try to pack their own lunches, join in with family meals, and help with grocery shopping and meal planning.

Teens and caregivers can use online resources to find inspiration for varied and healthy meals.

Teens should also try to incorporate 5 portions of a variety of fruits and vegetables a day, as they are a good source of minerals and vitamins.

If hungry between meals, teens can also try to snack responsibly by eating fruits, nuts, cottage cheese, or yogurts.

Teens should also be aware of portion sizes. Eating too much due to large portions may contribute to obesity.

Evidence suggests that roughly 20% of people between the ages of 12–19 have obesity.

However, making small changes in eating and physical activity habits can help people maintain a moderate weight.

By understanding serving sizes and calorie requirements, teens may be able to control their portion sizes.

Teens can also practice other healthy behaviors that can benefit their growth and development.

Sleep is vital for good health, and teens should aim for 8–10 hours of sleep each night. They should also try to avoid habits that can cause health problems, such as smoking.

It is vital that teens try to maintain hydration as it is crucial for many bodily functions.

It is also advisable to try and reduce sedentary time. The Physical Activities Guidelines for Americans recommend that teens should exercise for 1 hour or more a day.

For at least 3 days a week, activities should include either vigorous aerobic, muscle-strengthening, or bone-strengthening exercises.

Roughly 30 million people in the United States may experience an eating disorder in their lifetime.

Eating disorders are more common during teenage years, with research suggesting that more than one-half of teenage girls and almost one-third of teenage boys practice unhealthy weight control behaviors, such as vomiting, skipping meals, and taking laxatives.

A 2019 study suggests that the rate of anorexia among children and adolescents may be increasing. This is consistent with research that suggests increasing rates of other eating disorders such as bulimia.

It is also important to note that eating disorders can affect people of all races and ethnicities.

People should try to foster a positive relationship between food and exercise. It is important to try to discourage ideas that a particular body size will make people happy, or that certain foods are bad.

If a person or caregiver suspects someone may be at risk of an eating disorder, they may want to try prevention programs. These may help alter knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors toward disordered eating, and discourage eating problems.

Family based treatment (FBT) and enhanced cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT-E) are potential treatment and intervention options for individuals with eating disorders.

A 2017 review suggests that FBT is an effective form of eating disorder therapy, while a 2018 review supports CBT-E as an effective treatment for eating disorders.

Click here to learn more about finding an eating disorder therapist.

Some people may also want to consider speaking with a nutritionist or dietitian, who can help educate people on balanced meals, and help create meal plans.

The National Eating Disorders Association also provide a list of free and low-cost support.

Nutrition is important at any stage of life, but it is especially important during adolescence.

As the body is rapidly growing and undergoing changes, it is important to supply teens with adequate nutrients to support their development.

It is important to foster a positive relationship with food and encourage teens to eat a balanced diet with various foods rich in macronutrients and micronutrients.

Encouraging a nutritious and healthy lifestyle in the teenage years will likely reinforce positive behaviors that may continue into adulthood.