If your teenager is eating you out of house and home, you’re not alone. Most adolescents have huge appetites because they’re going through the growth spurt of puberty. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the body needs more calories during early adolescence than at any time of life. But those calories should come from a balanced diet filled with nutrient-dense foods to meet the daily nutrient requirements of a teenager. Adolescents most often fall short on calcium, iron and zinc, but teens also need adequate protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats.
"Tweens" ages 9 to 13 need 34 grams of protein a day, but the protein requirements increase during the teen years and differ by gender. Girls ages 14 to 18 need 46 grams of protein a day, while boys ages 14 to 18 need 52 grams daily. Teens require protein for the growth, repair and maintenance of cells, but most get twice as much as they need, according to the AAP. Beef, chicken, fish, milk, eggs, cheese and dry beans are good sources. A teen who consumed a cup of milk, a 3-ounce piece of meat, a cup of dry beans and 8 ounces of yogurt during the day would get 56 grams of protein.
Teenage girls often fall short on iron because it is lost during menstruation. Almost two-thirds of the iron in the body is found in the blood, according to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements. Teen girls ages 14 to 18 need 15 milligrams of iron a day compared to 11 milligrams daily for boys the same age. Younger teenage girls and boys require 8 milligrams of iron a day. Chicken liver is the best food source with 11 milligrams of iron per serving, but most teens aren’t fans of liver. Other good sources of iron include hamburgers, steak, turkey and fortified breakfast cereals.
All teenagers ages 13 to 18 require 1,300 milligrams of calcium a day, but few teens get the recommended amount of this mineral, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements. This is a particular concern for teen girls because almost 90 percent of bone mass in females is built by age 18 and osteoporosis is four times more common in women than men, reports the National Osteoporosis Foundation. Calcium, along with vitamin D, is needed to build strong bones. Making sure your daughter drinks plenty of milk will help meet her daily calcium requirement. A glass of nonfat milk contains approximately 300 milligrams of iron, which is 30 percent of the daily recommended amount. If your teen won’t drink milk or eat dairy foods or if she’s lactose intolerant, talk to her doctor about whether calcium supplements may be needed.
Zinc, a mineral needed for growth and development during adolescence, is found in red meat, poultry, seafood, dairy foods and fortified breakfast cereals. Teen boys ages 14 to 18 need 11 milligrams of zinc a day and teen girls the same age need 9 milligrams daily; younger teen boys and girls need 8 milligrams a day. Eating a cheeseburger would provide at least 40 percent of a teen’s daily requirement for zinc. A well-rounded diet that includes fruits and vegetables should provide teens with sufficient amounts of the other minerals and essential vitamins needed to meet their daily requirements, according to the AAP.
Teens require carbohydrates for energy because carbs are converted into glucose, the body’s main source of fuel. Encourage your teen to eat complex carbohydrates, which are found in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, rather than simple carbs such as sweets. Complex carbs provide sustained energy; simple carbs often lead to a quick energy crash. Plus, complex carbs are likely to contain fiber and essential vitamins and minerals, while the calories in simple carbs tend to be empty calories. Most nutritionists recommend that complex carbohydrates make up 50 to 60 percent of a teenager’s daily calorie intake, notes the AAP.
Even teens who are trying to slim down need fat because it supplies energy and helps the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins, but fat should be limited. Unless your teen is very active, she will put on weight with a fat-laden diet and may end up with heart disease early in life, particularly if the diet is high in saturated fat. The AAP recommends that 20 percent of a teen’s daily calories come from unsaturated fat, such as in fish, almonds, walnuts, olive oil and other plant-based oils. Artery-clogging saturated fat should be limited to no more than 10 percent of a teen’s daily calories.