Nutrition for teens

Eating is often a social activity, as well as a source of nutrition, for teens and young adults. Food should be fun and nutritious.

Recommended dos:

  • Eat a variety of foods.
  • Balance the foods you eat with physical activity.
  • Choose a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Be moderate in consumption of sugar and salt.
  • Get adequate calcium and iron to meet teen growth needs, which is especially important for girls.
  • Take at least 600 IU of vitamin D a day.
  • Take at least 400 micrograms of folic acid daily, if a girl has started her period.

Recommended don’ts:

  • Don’t count calories. Eat when you’re hungry. Stop when you’re full.
  • Don’t eat when you’re stressed, upset or bored.
  • Don’t eat in front of a TV or computer screen. You can easily lose track of how much you’re eating.
  • Don’t eat just because your friends are eating, unless you’re truly hungry.
  • Don’t drink your calories. Soda, coffee drinks and juice are high in calories and sugar. Drink mostly water. And don’t forget your milk.
  • Don’t diet. Restricting calories only makes young adults hungrier for the “forbidden foods.” And diets are normally unsuccessful.
  • Don’t get drunk. Drinking before the legal age is not only illegal, but drinking to excess puts you at risk for making bad decisions, such as drinking and driving, getting in over your head in a relationship with someone or using drugs.
  • Beware of eating-disordered thoughts and behaviors. Seek help right away if you sense that this is an issue. See Eating Disorders.

My teen is a vegetarian. Does she need anything special to stay healthy?

As much as 40 percent of teen girls and a smaller percentage, but a significant minority, of teen boys become vegetarian during adolescence. Meatless diets can be healthy, but extra care should be taken to be sure your young adult stays healthy.

Encourage them to:

  • Eat legumes, beans, whole grains, fruits and vegetables at every meal.
  • Eat nuts, seeds, soy, dairy products and plant oils daily.
  • Take a vitamin supplement that contains vitamin B12 (normally found only in animal foods) and vitamin B6 (found in active form only in animal sources).
  • Be certain you have 1200-1500 mg of calcium in your diet either in your food or as a supplement.
  • Consume iron-rich foods (12-15 mg daily is necessary for your blood cells to stay healthy), or take iron supplements.

Are muscle-building supplements safe?

Many young men and women consider the use of muscle-building supplements such as creatine to enhance their athletic performance.

We advise against the use of such supplements for several reasons:

  • The FDA does not test dietary supplements for content and safety.
  • The risks of these supplements are not well established. The FDA has received many complaints about creatine and other similar supplements, including seizures, irregular heartbeats, and even deaths.
  • Taking supplements increases the workload on kidneys by as much as 90-fold and may be dangerous for young developing organs, resulting in kidney failure.
  • Performance in sports has to do with more than just muscle bulk – coordination, execution, endurance and focus are all crucial to athletes. We encourage young adults to work on those areas instead of putting their bodies at potential risk by taking muscle-building chemicals.

How much calcium is enough?

Calcium is a key building block for healthy bones and strong teeth. Bones stop developing at age 30, so it’s important for children and young adults to build their bones when they’re young. Teenagers need 1200-1500 mg daily of calcium from preferably food, or supplements. To be adequately absorbed, calcium needs to be consumed throughout the day.

Foods and their calcium content:

  • Yogurt, plain 8 oz: 415 mg
  • Milk, skim, 8 oz: 302 mg
  • Milk, 2%, 8 oz: 297 mg
  • Cheddar cheese, 1.5 oz: 306 mg
  • Mozzarella cheese, 1.5 oz: 275 mg
  • Tofu, soft, made with calcium sulfate, ½ cup: 138 mg
  • Pudding made with 2% milk, 4 oz: 153 mg
  • Calcium-fortified orange juice, 8 oz: 300 mg
  • Spinach, cooked ½ cup: 120 mg
  • Broccoli, raw ½ cup: 21 mg

How much iron does my teen need?

Iron is an important component of red blood cells. Young adults, especially girls who are having regular or heavy periods, are at risk of inadequate iron intake. If iron stores become depleted, anemia (low red blood count) may result. Pale skin, fatigue and unusual food cravings are common symptoms of anemia.

Boys need 12 milligrams of elemental iron, while girls need 15 milligrams each day. Iron-rich foods include red meat, dark leafy greens, nuts, some cereals and dried fruits.

I am worried my child may have an eating disorder.

Please see our special section on eating disorders.


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A healthy diet should begin the first day of life. The nutrients your child receives promote brain and body development. When healthful eating habits are instilled at a young age, children are more likely to become healthy adults.