Adolescent Nutrition (Lesson 21)

Karen Overstreet, Roy, Heli J., Mcghee, Bertina M.


You are what you eat is hard for teenagers to keep in mind. Adolescents (teenagers) in America are faced daily with many choices that affect their health for the present and for a lifetime. Even though they are very body-conscious and seek independence, many teens live for the moment. The opinions of parents become less important than those of peers and others. Teens think of themselves as invincible. That is, they do not see the risk factors affecting them now or in years to come. Adults who work with teenagers or parents of teenagers can help teens make the connection that lifestyle choices made now can become lifelong habits, which can result in a healthy lifestyle forever.

What You Will Learn:

  • Special nutrition needs of teenagers as they pertain to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans
  • How teens can take responsibility for the foods they eat and how much they eat
  • How teens can take responsibility for what and how much exercise they do
  • Breakfast ideas for teens
  • Snack and party ideas for teens
  • How teens can set goals for dietary improvements

Understanding the Nutritional Needs and Growth of Teens

American teenagers eat out more, have greater access to ready-to-eat foods and meals that require reheating or minimal preparation and have less physical activity than ever before.

Teenagers from economically disadvantaged homes have more nutrition-related problems than do more affluent teens, especially vitamin A, folate and iron deficiencies. Growth spurts and the onset of menstruation during adolescence are associated with iron deficiency. There is a high prevalence of folacin deficiency in girls ages 10-19. The association of folate deficiency and neural-tube defects should be a concern for girls entering the childbearing age. For more information on the relationship of folic acid on birth defects, refer to the Centers for Disease Control.  Read the information to learn more about the importance of folic acid in preventing birth defects. More than 20% of 12-to-19-year-old adolescents are currently obese, and adolescent obesity seems to be on the rise. Conversely, there is an overemphasis on being thin for girls and muscular for boys. Obese adolescents enter the job market at lower salaries and tend to have higher incidences of low self-esteem and depression.

In 2009, students in grades 9 to12 in Louisiana answered a Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) conducted by the Louisiana Department of Education. The survey noted that:

  • 27% described themselves as slightly or very overweight, and 42% did not exercise to keep from gaining weight or to lose weight.
  • During the prior month, 7% of the students reported that they had induced vomiting or used laxatives to either lose weight or keep from gaining weight.
  • On the day before the survey, 21% of the students had not eaten fruit, 45% had not eaten green salad, and 25% had not consumed other vegetables.
  • 86% of students reported that they ate fruits and vegetables fewer than 5 times per day.
  • 37% stated that they drank at least one can, bottle or glass of soda per day.
  • 49% of Louisiana students reported that they did not attend physical education classes in an average week.
  • 61% reported not taking part in at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day in less than 5 days.

Despite teenagers' familiarity with nutrition information, many don't consume enough of some foods, including fruits and vegetables. Many girls need to eat more calcium-rich foods. Additionally, most teens need to eat foods that are lower in fat and sugars.

Adolescent Nutrition

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans apply to teenagers with a few additions. The energy needs of adolescents vary greatly on an individual basis. All adolescents should eat the minimum number of servings from each food group daily. Lower-fat foods and those with little sugar are wise food choices for all teens. Some very active teens may need to eat extra servings from the major food groups and possibly a few servings from the extra food group that contain some fat and sugar. Teens need three servings of foods from the milk group and other good dietary calcium sources, such as canned fish with soft bones (tuna, for example), legumes, broccoli, calcium-enriched grain products, calcium-fortified foods and beverages, lime-processed tortillas, seeds and nuts.

How Much Should I be Consuming of Each of the Food Groups?

  • Fruits: 1.5-2 cups per day
  • Vegetables: 2-3 cups per day
  • Grains: 5-8 1 oz equivalents per day (about 5-8 servings), including a minimum of 3-4 1 oz equivalents of whole grains
  • Protein foods: 5-6.5 oz equivalents per day (about 2-3 servings)
  • Dairy: 3 cups per day

What is a serving? Here are some visual cues to help determine a serving size. Measuring cups and scales can be useful, but the following serving size visual cues can help:

Deck of cards = three ounces of meat
Ping pong ball = one ounce of hard cheese
Baseball = one medium fruit or one cup of lettuce or cereal
12-ounce can of soda = two servings of juice or one and one-half servings of milk

Do teens need extra protein to build muscles? No. Two to three servings a day (five to seven ounces) from the meat group provide enough protein for the growing years.

The seventh dietary guideline for teens is to promote an alcohol-free and drug-free lifestyle. Alcohol provides calories only, with no other significant amount of nutrients. Teenagers who are interested in healthy food choices should stay away from alcoholic beverages. Alcohol provides seven calories per gram. Carbohydrates and protein provide four calories per gram. Fat provides nine calories per gram.

Healthy Weight

Early adolescence (ages 11-14) marks a period of rapid change in physical and emotional maturation. Chronological age may not match social and physical development. Teens make many of their own food choices and decisions about physical activity and health. Girls' growth spurts often occur before those of boys. Individual growth patterns are similar to those of their relatives. Teens often grow taller before developing an adult shape. Weight and other measures do not necessarily indicate the amount of body fat of an individual. Bigger, more muscular kids aren't necessarily overweight; and tall, slim kids aren't always underweight.

All people, including teens, need to listen to their internal hunger cues. That is, do not let the amount of food on a plate determine how much should be eaten. Eating slowly can give a person time to recognize that he or she is full. School lunch menus are designed to provide one-third of the calories needed by the teenager needing the most calories. Teenagers who need the most calories are tall, growing and very active. Smaller-framed teens who are less-active need fewer calories. Students should use the "offer vs. serve" option in the school lunch program to select the number and type of food items to eat. The same plan of action can be used when eating out.

Teenagers should exercise regularly and manage weight rather than focus on weight loss. Acceptance of a healthy, rather than an ideal, body image is necessary. We have certain genetic traits that will affect the shapes of our bodies. Weight loss will be proportional. Low levels of physical activity lead to obesity.

Benefits of physical activity:

  • Helps build and maintain healthy bones, muscles and joints.
  • Helps control weight, build lean muscle and reduce body fat.
  • Prevents or delays the development of high blood pressure and helps reduce blood pressure in some teens with hypertension.

Every teen should accumulate 30 minutes or more of moderate physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week. Moderate physical activity is defined as a brisk walk at three to four miles per hour. More physical activity can be helpful to a point. Increased physical activity will not result in short-term weight loss unless there is a reduction in the number of calories. However, increased physical activity is important to overall weight management. Overweight teenagers are more likely to become overweight adu lts. The later into adolescence that obesity persists, the greater the likelihood that an obese adolescent will become an obese adult.

Before, during and after exercising, teens should drink plenty of liquids to replenish the fluids lost. Water, one of the six basic nutrients, is the best fluid.

Teenagers need to accept and respect differences in body shapes. Differences in growth rate and body structure make every person's weight and height unique. Much of a person's body shape and size is inherited.

Teens need about 30 minutes of moderate physical activity daily, or 15 to 20 minutes of more intense physical activity at least three times a week. Physical activity must be continued throughout one's lifetime, rather than only for a day or a week. Older teens become less physically active than younger teens, especially girls.

Here are some good ideas of ways to get physical:

  • Walk, jog, skate or cycle
  • Swim or do water aerobics
  • Take a class in martial arts, dance or yoga
  • Golf (pull cart or carry clubs)
  • Canoe, row or kayak
  • Play racket ball, tennis or squash
  • Ski cross-country or downhill
  • Play basketball, softball or soccer
  • Hand cycle or play wheelchair sports
  • Take a nature walk
  • Most important – have fun while being active!

Dieting to lose weight is not recommended for most adolescents, especially young adolescents. Yet, over half of all teens feel the need to diet to either lose weight or maintain weight. Teens who are concerned about their body weight should talk to their doctors or other health care professionals.

Eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia, may start with an ordinary weight-loss diet. Talk to a school nurse, social worker or medical professional if you are concerned about a student.


Some teens need more sleep because their bodies are changing and growing rapidly. Many teens would prefer to sleep later than to wake up in time to eat breakfast. But by lunchtime they are starving. Sleep and exercise are two more ways to get energy. Eating breakfast gives teens more energy throughout the day, helps them concentrate in class, helps be less moody around friends and control their appetites at lunch.

If you have time to eat breakfast, fruit, whole-grain products (oatmeal, cereals, breads) and lean meats are all good breakfast choices. If you do not usually have time to eat breakfast in the mornings, plan and package a few snacks for breakfast the night before. Fruit, yogurt, bagels, crackers, cheese and sandwiches are quick and easy foods to munch while waiting for the bus or for a class to begin. School is a great place to eat breakfast. Soft drinks and candy provide calories but little else, making them not good options for breakfast. The lift that those foods give is not long-lasting and does not contribute to achieving an overall healthy diet. Also, a regular exercise plan helps to give energy. The more you move, the more energy you have.

Students who eat school breakfast:

  • Feel better in the morning.
  • Start the day ready to learn.
  • Are more alert and attentive.
  • Concentrate more in school.
  • Improve their test scores.


Eat meals at regular times. Skipping meals can lead to overeating, especially snack foods. Eating snacks is OK, but choose ones that fit into MyPlate.

Click here for the Snack Attack facts.

For party ideas, serve foods such as vegetable pizzas, popcorn, oatmeal cookies, and non-alcoholic fruit and club soda beverages.

Setting Goals for Dietary Improvements

Keeping a food and activity diary helps teenagers note their eating and activity patterns, identify their strengths and weaknesses and set goals for improvement or maintenance.

Go to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Women's Health. Click here for a food and activity diary that you can print out. 

Click here to see an interactive tool that can help you set a realistic goal.  See how some teenagers used this tool to reach their goal.

How To Reach Teenagers

Nutrition education is most successful when it is behaviorally oriented and emphasizes skills needed to maintain specific, healthy eating behaviors, such as eating more fruits and vegetables. The coordination of classroom and cafeteria learning experiences promotes opportunities to practice skills and reinforce attitudes needed for behavioral changes.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends effective nutrition education should include:

  • Behaviorally focused content that is developmentally appropriate and culturally relevant.
  • Hands-on activities that are fun.
  • Repeated opportunities for students to taste foods that are low in fat, sodium and added sugars, and high in vitamins, minerals and fiber.
  • Positive aspects of healthy eating behaviors.
  • Social learning techniques such as role modeling, providing incentives, developing social resistance skills, overcoming barriers to behavioral changes and goal setting.

    Students are more likely to make healthy eating choices when they receive consistent, reinforced messages from a number of creditable sources within an environment that encourages healthy choices. Collaboration among school food service staff, teachers, the community, families and institutional services is necessary.

    Learning activities can include:

    • Offering specific foods that coincide with nutrition and health themes (for example, whole-wheat rolls can complement lessons about fiber).
    • Displaying nutrition information about available foods.
    • Involving teenagers in planning menus and preparing recipes.
    • Tasting parties.
    • Health fairs featuring nutrition information.
    • Art projects, math, social studies and other curriculum activities that incorporate nutrition into the lesson.


    Smart teens:

    • Watch the amount and type of food they eat.
    • Use MyPlate, the food guide, as the daily guide for eating.
    • Eat breakfast.
    • Snack smart with food-group snacks from MyPlate.
    • Allow enough time to eat. It takes time to feel full.
    • Choose many foods lower in fat and sugars.
    • Enjoy the great flavors of fruits and vegetables and try different varieties.
    • Check nutrition facts on food labels to find the nutrients and calories in a single serving and note what a single serving is.
    • Eat at regular times. Make time to eat school breakfast and lunch.
    • Get moving. Whatever physical activity is chosen, move!

    Healthy teenagers need to know that:

    • The foods they eat affect their growth.
    • They are responsible for what they eat.
    • They are responsible for their level of physical activity.
    • They can set goals and make decisions to improve their health.

    2/5/2010 3:19:05 AM
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