By Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health
spacer spacer PInterest spacer
spacer Print spacer Email
Group of teen hands holding watermelon slices credit

did you knowQuestion mark symbol

During the growth spurt in puberty, teenagers do enough growing to achieve approximately 15% of their total adult height and 40% of their total adult weight!
In adolescence, food is the fuel for lots of growing and developing. This is also the time when your child forms lifelong food habits. You can encourage your child to have a healthy attitude to food during their teenage years.

Nutrition and food basics

Because of the massive physical changes happening in puberty, teenagers have bigger nutrition needs compared both to adults and young people who’ve finished their growth spurts.

Food is the fuel for these physical changes.

Your child’s level of physical activity and stage of development – rather than her age – determines how much energy and protein she needs. Most young people have increases in appetite so their bodies can get the extra nutrition they need for growth spurts.

While these physical and nutritional changes are taking place, your child might also be changing his food and eating habits. In fact, teenagers are likely to choose food for reasons not related to nutrition (for example, peer pressure or social activities), and don’t always make the best choices. For example, a 2007 Australian survey showed that fruit consumption goes down in adolescence, and intake of saturated fat and sugar is high.

So if you’re feeling concerned about your child’s eating habits, that’s understandable. But there’s a lot you can to do to encourage your child to make healthy food choices and develop healthy eating habits. 

During the growth spurt, boys gain more height and lean body mass than girls. This means their nutritional needs are higher – and explains why teenage boys will raid the pantry before and after dinner and still complain about being hungry. 

Key nutrients for teenagers

Your teenager will need extra calcium and iron during adolescence.

To get enough calcium, your child needs dairy foods during adolescence. Enough calcium will help your child to reach peak bone density and build strong bones for life.

Expanding blood volumes and growing muscle mass means your child needs more iron in adolescence. Girls also have extra iron needs because of their periods. Red meat is one of the richest sources of iron. A vegetarian diet can provide enough iron too, but vegetarians might need to work a bit harder to eat iron-rich alternatives to meat. Good vegetarian sources of iron include green leafy vegetables, legumes (for example, beans and lentils), wholegrains and fortified cereals.

You can find more information about key nutrients in our articles on vitamins and minerals and choosing healthy foods.

Helping your child make healthy food choices

Being a positive food role model is one of the best ways to help your child make healthy food choices. Here are some ideas for creating a healthy food environment:

  • The way you choose food and plan meals sends important messages to your child. By being thoughtful about food and choosing foods that are both tasty and nutritious, you let your child know that food is something that’s both enjoyable and fuel for the body.
  • The words you use to describe food send messages too. Avoid describing food as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘naughty’ and so on. You could try the terms ‘everyday’ and ‘sometimes’ foods instead.
  • Taking a balanced approach to food is helpful. This might mean enjoying your favourite treat – pizza, chocolate, potato chips, whatever it is – every now and then, but not all the time.
  • Eating when you’re hungry shows your child how to listen to her body’s hunger cues. This is likely to be healthier than ‘counting calories’ or eating when you’re bored, tired or down.
  • Making time to sit and enjoy healthy meals as a family encourages your child to eat well.
  • Involving your child in shopping for food, and planning and preparing meals, gives him a say in healthy family eating. You could even get your child browsing recipe websites for you. This taps into young people’s technology skills.
  • Young people tend to be motivated by the ‘here and now’ rather than long-term consequences. To motivate your child to make healthy choices, talk together about how food can help with concentration, performance and feeling good. This is likely to be more meaningful to your child than information about longer-term health risks.
  • A cupboard and fridge full of nutritious snacks and meals means that your child’s appetite and snacking will go a long way to meeting her extra nutritional needs. You also won’t have to ‘police’ her choices so much. Your child might even be willing to take nutritious snacks from home when she’s out and about, so she can avoid processed snack or takeaway foods. Some ideas are fresh fruit, dried fruit and nuts, low-fat cheese and wholegrain dry biscuits, low-fat yoghurt, baked beans with wholegrain toast, low-fat fruit smoothies and vegetable sticks with low-fat dips.
If your child knows how to cook some simple meals, it can be a big step towards him making better food choices. Also, if your child feels he has some say about what’s on the menu, he’s more likely to eat it.

Other things to think about

Physical activity
Doing regular physical activity is great for young people’s health, wellbeing and community involvement. The amount of extra food your child will need – if any – because of physical activity depends on her own energy requirements and level of activity.

Vegetarian diets
Many young people try vegetarian diets – they might want to experiment with different foods or a new sense of who they are, or they might be motivated by ethical, moral or economic reasons. People new to a vegetarian diet – especially adolescent children – should seek out reliable information to ensure their diet is well balanced and gives them all the nutrients they need.

Younger adolescent women who are pregnant have very high nutritional needs (in addition to the needs for most pregnant women) because they’re still growing and their bones haven’t fully developed yet. If your daughter’s pregnant, getting advice from a health professional is a good idea.

The influence of peers on young people’s food choices
Peer pressure increases between childhood and adulthood at the same time as your child is gaining independence and making his own food choices. This is why it’s important to develop good eating habits early so your child can make good food choices when he’s away from home.

Risks associated with adolescent eating habits

When we think of young people and health risks, drinking or smoking probably comes to mind before unhealthy eating. But poor food choices can have both immediate and long-term health consequences.

Overweight and obesity
Excess energy intake and minimal physical activity can lead to problems with overweight and obesity. If these problems aren’t addressed, long-term effects include increased risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Depending on the age of young people and how overweight they are, the best ways to manage overweight and obesity are through maintaining weight as growth continues or through gradual weight loss. Changing eating patterns in a sensible way and increasing physical activity are the best ways to do this. Research shows that drastic dieting isn’t usually successful and any weight a young person loses is usually put back on.

In 2007-2008, 25% of children aged 5-17 years were considered either overweight or obese.  

Weight-related disordered eating
Dieting can lead to fatigue, poor concentration and reduced muscle mass and bone density. In some cases, dieting might even lead to the development of eating disorders.

Sub-optimal bone mineralisation and increased risk of osteoporosis
Not getting calcium and/or being underweight for an extended period of time can have a negative effect on young people’s bone strength.

Iron deficiency anaemia
Following a vegetarian diet that isn’t well-planned can result in reduced iron intake. Over time, this can lead to iron deficiency anaemia.

Alcohol-related issues
Alcohol interferes with the development of young people’s growing brains. The risks of dangerous behaviour while drinking are also well known.

If you need some help with your child’s nutrition or you’re concerned about your child’s eating habits and health, you could start by making an appointment with your family GP. Another option is to see an Accredited Practising Dietitian to get some advice. You can visit the Dietitians Association of Australia website to find an accredited practising dietitian in your area.

What are young people eating?

A 2007 Australian survey showed that young people ate a wide variety of foods. But it also found that:

  • children aged 14-16 years consume the least fruit
  • girls aged 14-16 years seem to be most at risk of not meeting their calcium needs
  • children eat a lot more cereal and cereal products as they get older, which probably means they eat less from other food groups 
  • children’s intake of saturated fat and sugar is high.

Another study, conducted in 2011, found that:

  • only 5% of Australians aged 12-18 years met the daily requirements for fruit and vegetable intake (five servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit)
  • just over a third (38%) of Australians aged 12-18 years ate two servings of fruit and vegetables each day
  • a small proportion of children (6%) reported that they never ate fruit, and 1% reported never eating vegetables.

Saturated fat and sugar
High intake of saturated fat and sugar is probably the result of not-so-healthy food choices. Young people might have high intakes of saturated fat and sugar because they’re eating more processed snack food and takeaway food than they used to. Greater access to these ‘sometimes’ foods is part of growing up and taking more control of food choices when eating away from home. But too much fat and too much sugar can lead to weight issues and an increased risk of diet-related diseases such as type-2 diabetes.

Video Healthy food and eating for teenagers

‘It’s OK to have an occasional chocolate attack’, says one of the teenagers in this video. But all these teenagers agree that eating well the rest of the time is important. Their parents talk about how they enjoy nutritious family food and share their values about healthy eating through their family diets.