Adolescent Nutrition

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Harvard Medical School
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Chrome 2001

Adolescent Nutrition


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Adolescence is a time when many changes occur — physical, emotional, social and intellectual — all of which can influence a teen's nutritional needs.

While physical growth is slow but steady during the early and middle-childhood years, growth during adolescence is more noticeable and rapid, occurring in short but dramatic bursts called "growth spurts."The relative amount of physical growth that occurs during the adolescent years is second only to the relative amount seen during the first year of life.

Emotional, social and intellectual growth also continues at a rapid pace. Adolescents are defining who they are as individuals, including struggling to separate themselves from their parents.They are increasingly concerned about appearance and hope to be accepted by their peers. These feelings can directly affect their eating behaviors and physical growth.

Most adolescents are amazingly active, with demanding schedules that include classes, homework, sports and other extracurricular activities. To keep up with their busy lives and to be sure that they get enough energy and nutrients for optimal growth and development, adolescents need to eat a variety of healthy foods, usually three meals a day plus snacks.

The following information summarizes the nutritional needs for adolescents. The goal is to make it easier for you to help your adolescent learn healthy eating habits. It is essential that adolescents learn healthy eating habits, in order to:

  • Reach their full growth potential
  • Be healthy
  • Avoid adolescent health problems directly related to nutrition, such as iron-deficiency anemia (not enough red blood cells), poor growth, obesity and cavities
  • Stay healthy as they grow into adulthood, by reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes mellitus, osteoporosis and some forms of cancer

Serve well-balanced meals to meet caloric needs

The number of calories each adolescent needs depends upon that individual’s body size, amount of activity and rate of growth. The rate of growth notably increases with the onset of puberty (maturing from a child into a young adult), which typically occurs late in middle childhood or early in adolescence. A teen’s appetite will vary from week to week or month to month, increasing during growth spurts, and decreasing during periods of slower growth.

On average, adolescent males between the ages of 11 and 21 years need more calories per day (2,800 calories) than adolescent females need per day (2,200 calories). If your adolescent is involved in vigorous physical activity, this daily caloric need increases by an additional 600 to 1,000 calories per day. Remember though, it is usually never necessary to count calories; just be sure to encourage your teen to eat nutritious foods from each of the traditional food groups every day.

Adolescents should get enough calories and the right amount of nutrients with an average daily diet that includes:

  • Grains (bread, cereal, rice, pasta) – 6-8 ounces
  • Vegetables – 2.5 - 3 cups
  • Fruits – 2-3 servings
  • Dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese) – 3 cups
  • Protein (meat, poultry, fish, beans, nuts, eggs) – 5 - 6.5 cups

For suggestions and approximate serving sizes, see Food Groups with Serving Suggestions or go to

Make snacks part of the daily meal plan

As mentioned above, there are times when adolescents have larger appetites, for example during growth spurts and periods of increased activity. Therefore, it is not unusual for teens to eat every two to three hours, meaning they want mid-morning and after-school snacks in addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some examples of healthful snacks are:

  • Fresh fruits, dried fruits, fruit-filled cookies
  • Vegetables with low-fat dip
  • Cheese cubes, cheese sticks, yogurt, milk
  • Whole-grain bread, bagels, whole-grain crackers, unsalted whole-wheat pretzels, rice cakes, dry cereals (low or no sugar) with or without milk
  • Peanut butter, hummus, bean dip

Keep it heart-healthy

Adolescents, just like adults, should follow a heart-healthy diet. This means that they should eat few high-fat foods, especially those containing saturated fats, and that no more than one-third of total calories should be from fat. No one should eat more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day.

The following suggestions may help limit your family’s fat and cholesterol intake:

  • Switch to low-fat or nonfat milk (except for children younger than 2 years old), and reduced-fat cheeses and yogurts.
  • Limit fried foods.
  • Use low-fat cooking methods such as baking, steaming, boiling, grilling and broiling, and use nonstick pans and cooking spray instead of oil when frying.
  • Always have a wide variety of fruits and vegetables on hand. Be sure to serve them for snacks rather than cookies, chips, ice cream or other high-fat foods.
  • Trim all visible fat from meat and remove skin from poultry before cooking.
  • Avoid using high-fat sauces, salad dressings and spreads (for example, butter, margarine, mayonnaise).
  • Choose lower-fat items when eating out, such as a grilled chicken sandwich instead of a fried burger, a salad instead of fries, or pasta with tomato sauce instead of pepperoni pizza.

Watch the calcium intake

Calcium is a mineral that is essential for building strong bones and healthy teeth. For most adolescents, dairy products are the major sources of calcium and vitamin D (another important nutrient that helps the body absorb calcium). Experts recommend 3,000 milligrams of calcium per day. Make sure your adolescent, especially your daughter, gets enough calcium every day. Calcium intake during adolescence is often low because, for many teens, soda, sports drinks and juice replace milk in the diet. In addition, adolescent females, who need even more calcium than males, may avoid dairy products because they are counting calories and think that all dairy products are high-fat foods. For additional information see Getting Enough Calcium.

Breakfast is important

Adolescents, just like adults, need to eat breakfast every day. When most people wake up, it's been 10 or 12 hours since their last meal from the day before. Their brains and muscles are running on reserve fuel and, therefore, need more energy to perform at their best. It is most important that you and your adolescent eat breakfast every day. You do not need to make time for a traditional, sit-down hot meal. There are lots of fast, easy foods that can give you a healthy start to your day. Read The Importance of Breakfast for more information and recipe ideas.

Lunch is important, too

Working all morning at school burns up a lot of energy, and adolescents need a healthy lunch to refuel so that they can make the most of their afternoon. Encourage your adolescent to eat a healthy lunch every day, either one provided by the school or one brought from home. For more information about making healthy choices from the school menu, or about packing healthy lunches from home, see School Lunches.

Eat healthfully now, avoid obesity later

Statistics show that the number of children of all ages who are overweight or obese has increased in recent years. At the same time, the intake of fat, saturated fat and sodium among all children (as well as adults) significantly exceeds the recommended amounts. Eating habits are formed during childhood, when obesity and other diseases including heart disease and osteoporosis also begin to develop. It is important that parents themselves eat healthy diets and get regular exercise. This will help to establish these healthy eating habits in their children. For more information on eating healthy to maintain a healthy weight, see Obesity.

Eat together

Remember that meals and snacks are important social times for children and families. If you are home with your adolescent after school, sit down with him as he eats his snack and give him an opportunity to tell you about his day. Although your adolescent may be spending more time with friends, make plans, whenever possible, to share meals together as a family, whether breakfast, dinner or weekend lunches. Encourage pleasant conversation during mealtimes and make sure that each person gets a chance to talk. If your family hardly ever seems to share evening meals together at home because of scheduled evening activities, try packing a picnic supper and eat together at the event.


Last updated August 14, 2014

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