Teenagers are not only known for their tremendous appetite but also for usually being picky eaters. At that age, it’s easy to be tempted by ultra-processed foods, whether by eating out, drinking sugary beverages, or snacking on unhealthy meals.
Yet, eating healthy is a crucial part of developing the body during the teenage years. From vegetables to seafood, hundreds of options allow for delicious meals that provide the nutrients needed. Here’s what you need to know.
Building a Healthy Eating Plan for Teenagers
Although people usually regard teenagers as being able to tolerate everything, a healthy diet is essential for every stage of your life. Calories, nutrients, and diet diversity are aspects you should keep in mind when planning your meals for the week — no matter your age.
Of course, teenagers can be picky about the food they like while also being almost insatiable due to their bodies developing. Picking the right ingredients is crucial in a teen’s eating plan, as they will provide all the building blocks they need for their development. Here are some of the cornerstones of healthy eating.
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of a healthy diet is, inevitably, vegetables. From spinach to potatoes, vegetables provide essential nutrients that help prevent several conditions such as osteoporosis and cancer (1).
Ideally, you should try to balance the type of vegetables you include in the diet. Experts usually divide them into five subgroups according to their nutritional content (2):
- Dark green — such as broccoli, kale, spinach
- Red and orange — such as peppers, carrots, and tomatoes
- Beans, peas, and lentils — such as garbanzo beans, split peas, and green lentils
- Starchy vegetables — such as corn, potatoes, and cassava
- Other — such as onions, cabbage, and cauliflower
Each of these subgroups has its individual benefits. For example, dark leafy greens such as spinach provide thylakoid — a unique nutrient that makes you feel satiated for longer than usual (3).
Fruits are the perfect replacement for sweets, thanks to their fantastic nutritional values and health benefits. Eating at least a few fruits each week after meals can significantly impact your well-being and satiety levels. Plus, they make for a delicious midday snack during long days at school (4).
Apples, for example, are known for preventing cardiovascular disease and potentially impacting your gut health. Although more research is needed, experts believe that apples could positively influence gut microbiota — leading to a healthier gastrointestinal system (5).
Similarly, berries have been shown to increase satiety levels through a particular nutrient called pectin. This is particularly helpful for a teenager looking to lose weight, as it will reduce overeating throughout the day (6, 7).
Seafood provides a healthier alternative to most meats and allows for many sophisticated recipes. Most fish provide iodine — a nutrient key to maintaining a healthy metabolism. They also provide omega-3 fatty acids, which are fantastic for your heart (8, 9).
A cheap option that is also easy to include in recipes is tuna, which provides an astounding amount of protein. Similarly, it contains various micronutrients such as calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc (10).
Despite usually being more expensive, salmon is also an excellent choice for increasing your omega-3 weekly intake. Plus, salmon positively impacts the cardiovascular system by lowering blood pressure and increasing healthy cholesterol levels (11).
Chicken is another alternative to processed meats, providing a high amount of protein. However, unlike most other meats, chicken has the advantage of containing low collagen levels, making it easier to digest (12).
Poultry is also a fantastic source of other micronutrients that are essential to a healthy diet. For example, it provides a high amount of vitamin B12, which plays a vital part in nerve function and cell metabolism (13, 14).
Similarly, chicken is rich in iron — a mineral essential to forming red blood cells, which carry oxygen through your blood. Lacking iron leads to a condition known as anemia, leading to symptoms such as tiredness and pale skin (13, 15, 16).
Foods such as bread and rice are some of the cornerstones of healthy eating for kids, teens, and adults alike. Yet, it’s essential to know that this only applies to their whole-grain versions, which are less processed and are generally healthier.
Whole grain foods such as quinoa, brown rice, and oats provide high amounts of protein and fiber. These two combined nutrients go a long way in making you feel satiated throughout the day, preventing overeating and lowering your caloric intake (17, 18).
While this doesn’t mean that more processed foods (like white rice) are off-limits, replacing them with whole-grain varieties is often better. Yet, it’s crucial to remember that processed foods usually have excess calories (19).
Beans and Legumes
The already mentioned beans and legumes are often regarded as their own food category when considering a healthy eating plan. This is because they have an astounding amount of health benefits, such as being suitable for weight loss.
A single cup of legumes provides about 115 calories, which are packed with various nutrients such as copper, fiber, and manganese. But, more importantly, it contains about 8 grams of protein — which provides the necessary building blocks for a developing body (20).
Legumes and beans may also help in treating metabolism-related conditions such as diabetes. Recent research shows that legumes lead to reduced blood glucose, total cholesterol levels, and blood pressure (20).
Teenagers are known for being constantly hungry, making them prone to snacking. Unfortunately, this often causes an unnecessary increase in caloric intake without adding any nutritional value to their diets.
However, it’s possible to replace processed snacks with healthier alternatives. For example, nuts are the perfect alternative to chips, as they’re nutrient-dense and beneficial to conditions such as diabetes (21).
One could opt for Greek yogurt to replace breakfast foods, as it’s an excellent protein and calcium source. Otherwise, eggs are often a good inclusion in breakfasts — research suggests that eating one or two eggs a day positively impacts satiety levels (22, 23).
Related: Healthy snacks for weight loss
Healthy Habits to Complement a Wholesome Diet
As most people know, diet is one of the crucial aspects of maintaining a healthy body. Through a wholesome eating plan, you’ll be able to provide your body with all the nutrients it needs to keep developing during its teenage years.
However, eating well isn’t everything — it’s also important to complement it with a healthy lifestyle. This is especially true for teenagers, who must avoid setting an unhealthy precedent during development.
It’s impossible not to mention exercising when discussing maintaining a healthy body. Experts suggest that teenagers should get about 60 minutes of moderate or intense physical activity daily. Teens who choose not to exercise have decreased academic performance, weaker bones and muscles, and higher body fat (24).
Furthermore, sticking to a strict exercise routine allows teenagers to improve their discipline while ingraining a necessary habit for their future. Research shows that exercising regularly throughout your teenage years promotes life-long mental and physical well-being (24).
Avoiding Sugary Beverages
Sugary beverages, such as tea and sweetened coffee, can have a negative impact on your physical health. For example, these processed drinks have been shown to increase your risk of cardiovascular disease while adding extra calories to your diet (25).
Instead, try to replace sugary beverages with water. If you find yourself too attached to drinking sweet beverages, you could also try replacing them with natural juice. Other similar alternatives include iced tea, lemonade, or sparkling water (26).
Eating at Home
Due to factors such as their school schedule or plans with friends, teenagers often choose not to eat at home. This can significantly impact their health, as recent research shows that eating out isn’t as healthy — even when ordering vegetable-based options.
Eating at home promotes a higher diet diversity, increased fiber intake, and reduced sugar levels. Plus, experts point out that eating out leads to an extra 100 calories per day — an important factor to remember when trying to lose weight (27).
Planning Your Meals
The concept of meal prepping has grown popular over the last few years thanks to its versatility, low cost, and health benefits. Although you don’t necessarily have to cook the meals ahead of time, planning your weekly meals may benefit your health.
Research shows that meal planning lowers the risk of obesity while improving your diet diversity. Plus, it’s also linked to lower stress levels — knowing what you’re going to eat and how much time it takes to cook it takes a considerable weight off your shoulders (27, 28).
Why Is Healthy Eating Important for Teenagers?
During adolescence, the body is in constant and rapid development while also undergoing significant hormonal changes. At that time, a healthy eating plan is more important than ever, as it’s the way to provide your body with all the necessary tools for development (29).
Furthermore, a good eating plan will help in several aspects of your life. For example, a healthy, planned diet will allow you to save some money and improve your cooking skills. These are some of the benefits of eating healthy (30):
- Performing better at schools
- Eating food that you like
- Develop your independence
- Learn how to prevent metabolism-related conditions
Ingraining good eating habits isn’t only good for your teenage years — it also sets a precedent that’ll help you later in life. As we already mentioned, having a healthy body during your teenage years will promote your well-being later in life (24).
What Can I Do as a Parent?
Teenagers are rebellious in almost every way they can — and unfortunately, food is no exception. As such, parents often have a hard time encouraging their teenage sons and daughters to follow a healthy diet.
However, there are a few ways to promote healthy eating in your teens’ life. For example, you could try replacing most processed food in your house with healthier options. That way, your teen will be encouraged to grab a healthy snack, like fruit, instead of opting for ultra-processed foods.
Similarly, try to cook them meals you know they already like, and replace some of the low-nutrient ingredients with healthier ones. Tacos may not be the most wholesome meal — but replacing the content with beans, chicken, and low-fat cheese will make it a wholesome lunch option.
It’s also essential to show them that they aren’t alone in the process of changing up their diets. Eating the same things as they do will go a long way in showing that a healthy diet is important for everyone at all stages of life.
Naturally, some things will be out of your control. Friends, school times, and eating outside all play a crucial role in your teen’s diet, so make sure to encourage them to opt for healthier options when not at home.
Key Takeaways: Eating Healthy Through Adolescence
Teens need a healthy diet as much as adults or kids do. Eating well is essential to providing their bodies with the necessary building blocks for a correct and healthy development. Plus, ingraining good eating habits will promote their future well-being, preventing conditions such as diabetes.
If you find that a good diet isn’t working for you (or your teenage daughter or son), it might be time to check with a dietitian. A trained professional will be able to create an eating plan that takes into account your personal preferences and adjust the meals based on your goals.