Teenagers are known for lots of things: endless energy, mystifying slang, borrowing the car at inopportune times. One thing they aren’t known for is an interest in proper nutrition. You can understand why. The natural resiliency of youth can cover for dietary lapses, which often makes a teen feel invincible. Eat pizza and guzzle soda all night? No problem.
You know better. You realize that the nutritional groundwork your teen lays down today—for better or worse—will affect his or her well-being for years to come.
What’s more, many teenagers have dietary troubles that affect them right now. Weight problems among youngsters ages 12 to 19 have tripled in 20 years, and research has linked excess weight in adolescence with depression and poor self-esteem. At the other extreme, some teens—especially girls—obsess about their weight to the point of developing eating disorders such as anorexia, marked by excessive weight loss, and bulimia, marked by bingeing and purging food.
Obviously, poor nutrition is a bad thing at any age. But teens are particularly vulnerable because of the changes their bodies are undergoing.
Height and weight increase dramatically during puberty. This growth spurt, which lasts two or three years, accounts for roughly 20% of adult height and 50% of ideal adult body weight. These changes are spurred by increased hormonal activity, including hormones that control bone maturation.
This growth is fueled by an increase in nutrition. The average girl needs between 2,200 and 2,400 calories a day; the average boy needs between 2,500 and 3,000 calories. (Teenage boys are famous for their ravenous hunger.) Micronutrient needs also rise. For example, girls between the ages of 14 and 18 require 1,300 mg of calcium a day, compared with 800 mg for girls from ages 4 to 8.
The first step in meeting these needs starts at the family dinner table, where you should all be sharing at least one healthy meal a day. Trash the chips and dip, and don’t eat junk food yourself—kids can sniff out “do as I say, not as I do” in a heartbeat.
Encourage smart snacking, such as fresh fruit or organic peanut butter on whole-wheat bread. For teens on the go, find a high-quality energy bar that combines good taste with a healthy nutritional profile—it beats having a hungry youngster hit the nearest candy machine after band rehearsal or soccer practice.
Making Up Shortfalls
A quality teen multivitamin can help cover any nutritional deficits your kids may incur. According to the USDA, three out of every four girls don’t get enough iron, while two of every three boys are low in zinc. And everybody, it seems, doesn’t get enough vitamin D.
An ideal multi has formulations tailored to the needs of each gender. Boys need plenty of amino acids, the building blocks for all that extra muscle their bodies are developing. Zinc, especially in a complex that includes magnesium and aspartic acid, also fuels muscle growth in addition to supporting healthy sexual development. A supplement for girls should include herbs such as cranberry and fenugreek to support urinary health and proper hormone balance. Cranberry combined with a probiotic such as S. salivarius K12 can provide anti-blemish protection for both genders. Boys and girls also need vitamin K2 for healthy bone growth, in addition to adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D.
You may not understand everything teens say (or text). But understanding teen nutrition will let you guide them into making proper dietary choices, now and for the rest of their lives.