Adolescence is the transition period between childhood and adulthood, a time of life that begins at puberty . For girls, puberty typically occurs between ages 12 and 13, while for boys it occurs between ages 14 and 15. It is one of the fastest growth periods of a person's life. During this time, physical changes affect the body's nutritional needs, while changes in one's lifestyle may affect eating habits and food choices. Nutritional health during adolescence is important for supporting the growing body and for preventing future health problems.
Increased Nutritional Needs
Adolescents need additional calories to provide energy for growth and activity. Boys ages 11 to 18 need between 2,500 and 2,800 calories each day. Adolescent girls need approximately 2,200 calories each day. This is a significant increase from childhood requirements. To meet these calorie needs, teens should choose a variety of healthful foods, such as lean protein sources, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Protein is important for growth and maintenance of muscle. Adolescents need between 45 and 60 grams of protein each day. Most teens easily meet this requirement with their intake of beef, pork, chicken, eggs, and dairy products. Protein is also available from certain vegetable sources, including tofu and other soy foods, beans, and nuts.
Adequate calcium intake is essential for development of strong and dense bones during the adolescent growth spurt. Inadequate calcium intake during adolescence and young adulthood puts individuals at risk for developing osteoporosis later in life. In order to get the required 1,200 milligrams of calcium, teens are encouraged to consume three to four servings of calcium-rich foods each day. Good sources include milk, yogurt, cheese, calcium-fortified juices, and calcium-fortified cereals.
As adolescents gain muscle mass, more iron is needed to help their new muscle cells obtain oxygen for energy. A deficiency of iron causes anemia , which leads to fatigue , confusion, and weakness. Adolescent boys need 12 milligrams of iron each day, while girls need 15 milligrams. Good sources of iron include beef, chicken, pork, legumes (including beans and peanuts), enriched or whole grains, and leafy green vegetables such as spinach, collards, and kale.
Eating and Snacking Patterns
Adolescents tend to eat differently than they did as children. With after-school activities and active social lives, teens are not always able to sit down for three meals a day. Busy schedules may lead to meal skipping, snacking throughout the day, and more eating away from home. Many teens skip breakfast, for example, but this meal is particularly important for getting enough energy to make it through the day, and it may even lead to better academic performance. When teens skip meals, they are more likely to grab fast food from a restaurant, vending machine, or convenience store. These foods are high in fat and sugar and tend to provide little nutritional value. In addition, eating too many fast foods can lead to weight gain and, in some cases, diabetes and heart disease .
Eating meals and snacking away from home puts the responsibility for good food choices right in adolescents' hands. Snacks should be low in both fat and added sugar. Some healthful snack ideas include fresh fruit, sliced vegetables with low-fat dip, low-fat yogurt, low-fat string cheese, peanut butter and crackers, baked chips, granola bars, and graham crackers. Juices, fruit drinks, and sodas are usually very high in calories from natural or added sugar, so they should be consumed in moderation. The Food Guide Pyramid is an appropriate guide for adolescents' food choices, even when snacking.
Potential Nutrition-Related Problems
Adolescents are at risk for obesity , obesity-related chronic diseases, and eating disorders.
Obesity, Diabetes, and Heart Disease.
All over the world, adolescent obesity is on the rise. This has led to an increase in obesity-related diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Experts believe this rise in obesity is due to lack of physical activity and an increase in the amount of fast food and "junk food" available to adolescents. Staying active and eating foods that are low in fat and sugar promote a healthy weight for teens.
Adolescents tend to be very conscious of appearances and may feel pressure to be thin or to look a certain way. Fear of gaining weight may lead to overly restrictive eating habits. Some teens resort to self-induced vomiting or laxative use to control their weight. Both boys and girls are affected by eating disorders. Teens who suspect they have a problem with body image or eating habits should talk to a trusted adult.
Certain groups of adolescents may be at risk for nutritional inadequacies.
When a teenager becomes pregnant, she needs enough nutrients to support both her baby and her own continued growth and physical development. If her nutritional needs are not met, her baby may be born with low birth weight or other health problems. For the best outcome, pregnant teens need to seek prenatal care and nutrition advice early in their pregnancy.
Adolescents involved in athletics may feel pressure to be at a particular weight or to perform at a certain level. Some young athletes may be tempted to adopt unhealthful behaviors such as crash dieting, taking supplements to improve performance, or eating unhealthful foods to fulfill their hearty appetites. A balanced nutritional outlook is important for good health and athletic performance.
A vegetarian diet can be a very healthy option. However, adolescents who follow a vegetarian diet, whether for religious or personal reasons, need to carefully plan their intake to get the protein and minerals they need. Strict vegetarians (those who do not eat eggs or dairy products), also known as vegans , may need nutritional supplements to meet their needs for calcium, vitamin B 12 , and iron.
Adolescence is a time of growing up both physically and socially. During these years, the nutrition choices people make will affect not only their current health, but their future health as well.
Amy N. Marlow
Bode, Janet (1999). Food Fight: A Guide to Eating Disorders for Preteens and Their Parents. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks.
Duyff, Roberta Larson (2002). American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide. New York: Wiley.
Krizmanic, Judy (1999). The Teen's Vegetarian Cookbook. New York: Viking.