Feeding a teenager can be a real challenge at the best of times. There is an increased need for optimal nutrition for teenagers, but they just want to eat junk food with their friends! This can make it tough to find a balance that everyone is happy with.
If this is something you’ve been struggling with, don’t worry. There are plenty of small tweaks you can make to the family’s diet to feed your teenager and help them thrive during their adolescent years.
Watch the video below or keep watching to learn more about nutrition for teenagers and teenagers.
Why Nutrition For Teenagers Is A Challenge
We know that teens have unique nutritional needs because of the growth and development that occurs. Thanks to the increased requirement for nutrition, their appetite often increases as well! It can be impossible to feed them enough food, especially in the case of boys.
Unfortunately, teenagers do tend more towards processed snacks and fast food. In fact, adolescents are the greatest consumers of calorie-dense junk foods! In some cases, this can be a bit of a rebellion, especially if you’ve raised them on a wholefood diet. But it is also because they need extra calories, so the brain looks for foods that are energy-dense.
Most energy-dense foods don’t have the nutrients that a teenager needs. If your teen does tend more towards processed foods, you may want to talk to them about the difference between energy-dense foods and nutrient-dense foods.
Even if they know that junk food isn’t great for them, it is difficult for them to resist it. The teenage brain is wired to be attracted to short-term rewards including junk food, screens and social media. This is because they have a higher amount of dopamine receptors.
The pre-frontal cortex – where behaviour and decisions are controlled – isn’t fully mature until our early 20s, so teens are wired to prioritise reward over sensible behaviour! In this way, the decisions they make around junk food is quite normal from a developmental standpoint.
Optimising Nutrition For Teenagers & Tweenagers
Although it can be challenging to feed your teenagers well, it’s not impossible. There are a few key areas to focus on when it comes to nutrition for teenagers. These will not only help your teens as they grow and develop, but also will help keep the peace at home!
Protein is important throughout the lifespan. But because of the growth and development that teens undergo, it’s particularly important for them to get enough. Protein is also a nutrient that fills kids up – if they don’t get enough, they’ll be constantly hungry!
Protein includes sources such as:
- Lentils and legumes
- Some nuts and seeds
Don’t save protein as something just for dinnertime! Make sure they are including some protein at each meal, and within their snacks as well. You can get them to add some nuts and seeds to their breakfast, or add some shredded chicken to their lunchtime wrap.
Many teens don’t get enough fibre because they prefer processed and refined carbohydrates. But we want to focus on getting plenty of fibre into their diet.
Fibre helps to keep them full, but it’s also an important part of healthy digestion and detoxification. It fuels a healthy microbiome, which helps with balancing hormones and preventing hormone-related skin issues. This can be a great motivator for teens to eat fibre, especially if they have skin issues!
Good sources of fibre include:
- Wholegrains such as oats, brown rice, wholegrain pasta, quinoa and buckwheat
- Beans and legumes
It’s easier to add these types of foods into meals and snacks that your teens already like. For example, you might add some extra veggies into a pasta sauce or add some lentils into taco mince.
Most teens get plenty of carbohydrates – but not necessarily the healthiest form! Teens will usually eat refined and simple carbs such as bread, pasta, rice, crackers and snacks. But this is not what their bodies need!
When we eat refined carbohydrates, we’ll feel good for a little bit as our blood sugar levels spike. But within an hour or so, they will crash back down and leave us feeling ravenous again. This is very much the case when it comes to teens as well!
On the other hand, when we eat complex high-fibre carbohydrates, the energy feeds slowly into the body. This keeps us fuller for longer, and also steadies out mood.
Complex carbohydrates include wholegrains, fruit, vegetables and legumes. By switching some of these into the diet of your teen, you’ll help keep hunger at bay and hopefully avoid a few mood swings as well!
During adolescence, there are significant developments in the brain that we need to support. That’s why it’s important for teens to eat the right type of fats, particularly omega-3s.
Omega-3 fatty acids are one of the most essential nutrients for the brain and nervous system. They are also important for a steady mood, healthy skin and balanced hormones.
The only consistent way to get omega-3s through the diet is fish and seafood. Some nuts and seeds have a small amount of omega-3s, but they need to be converted in the body before they can be used.
When it comes to fish and seafood, get a little creative with how you serve it. Fresh is best, but even tinned fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel are good options. You can make salmon mornay, make some fish patties, or even serve up some calamari or squid. Ideally, your family would be including 3-4 serves of fish and seafood per week – but one is better than none at all!
If your teen doesn’t like fish or is vegetarian, you may want to look at sourcing a high-quality omega-3 supplement.
All of the vitamins and minerals are important throughout every stage of life. But when it comes to nutrition for teenagers, there are four minerals that need particular attention.
Teens need more calcium than the average adult. In fact, they need around 1200-1300mg per day – the same amount as a pregnant woman! This is due to the bone development that occurs during adolescence.
This amount of calcium is easy enough to get if your teen is eating 3-4 serves of dairy per day. But dairy can be a problem for some teens that react to dairy – including those with an allergy or intolerance. That’s why we want to consider other forms of calcium.
Some dairy-free sources of calcium include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Green leafy vegetables
- Fish with bones
- Tahini (sesame seed spread)
To learn more about dairy-free sources of calcium, check out our previous article here.
Another key nutrient is magnesium. It plays hundreds of roles throughout the body, but one of the most essential is energy production. Magnesium helps to produce energy on a cellular level. As many teens are tired and lethargic, getting enough magnesium can be useful to support energy production.
It also aids in a healthy stress response, can be beneficial for anxiety, and is needed for healthy hormone production.
Magnesium can be found in foods such as:
- Green leafy vegetables
- Dark chocolate
However, it can be difficult to get enough magnesium through diet alone. Many teens will benefit from taking a high-quality magnesium supplement, especially if they tend towards high stress, anxiety and low energy levels.
We often think about iron for girls because of menstruation, which starts in the tween and teen years. But iron is also critical for all teenagers – boys and girls, menstruating or not. Because of the intensive growth that happens during adolescence, teens experience an increase in blood volume. This requires extra iron.
However, iron is particularly important for teenage girls, especially if they experience heavier periods. Teenage girls are also more likely to become vegetarian or not eat meat, which can make it difficult to get enough iron into them. In this case, a supplement may be warranted.
Red meat is the top source for iron, although you can get it through green leafy vegetables and legumes as well.
Iron is the easiest nutrient to keep an eye on, as all you need is a simple blood test to check for a deficiency. If your teen is showing signs of low iron such as low energy, pale skin and fatigue after exercise, it’s worth getting a check-up.
Zinc is essential for so many factors during adolescence. We need zinc for growth and development, reproductive maturation during puberty, brain health and skin health.
Zinc is also essential for maintaining a healthy immune system. If your teen tends to get sick easily, it’s worth keeping an eye on their zinc intake.
You can find zinc in:
When it comes to zinc, you want to keep a particular eye on their intake if they are vegetarian or don’t eat much meat. Although zinc is found in some plant-based foods, the levels are on the lower side. This makes it difficult to get enough of in a vegetarian diet. If your teen is vegetarian or dislikes animal proteins, a supplement may be required.
One final tip: focus on what you can do
It’s common for parents to be hard on themselves when their teens are no longer under their control! But we want to make sure that we keep the conversation open with our teens so that they don’t feel like they need to hide things from us. It’s natural for us to lose some control.
So when it comes to nutrition for your teen, do the best with what you can do at home. Don’t worry too much about what they eat when they’re around their friends or go out for social occasions.
Stay aware of what they eat, and educate them about why they might want to make healthier choices. That’s all we can really do!
Need some personalised advice when it comes to nutrition for teenagers?
The team at Natural Super Kids is here to help.
You can book in a consultation with us here.