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Nutrient Teens Need

Your teen has growth spurts in adolescence. These require additional protein to accommodate:

  • muscle growth,
  • calcium and vitamin D for bone growth, and
  • iron for overall tissue growth1.

During these growth spurts, your teen will need increased calories (energy) to match their activity levels. For teens involved in sports or physical work, this means a significant increase in food intake. For others, however, calorie needs may be more modest.

How Many Calories Do Teens Need?

As a teen your appetite increases, so sedentary teens can gain extra body fat if they have access to high-energy food.2 Generally, boys and girls will require different calories levels2:

  • Adolescent males: 2800+/- calories per day for normal growth
  • Adolescent females: 2200+/- calories per day 

Research shows that teens in the United States eat less of these nutrients than are recommended:

  • Vitamin A
  • Folic acid
  • Fiber
  • Calcium
  • Vitamin D
  • Zinc

In addition, US teens consume +/-67 percent of their calories from ultra-processed foods (foods made with little to no whole foods). Ultra-processed foods are typically high in added sugar, trans-fat, and sodium and low in fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. 

In the past 10 years, teens are also eating more pizza, hamburgers, cakes, and ice cream—ultra-processed foods.3

Developmentally, adolescence is a transition period where teens start to take responsibility for their food selection. Some surveys show, however, that two thirds of teens have poor knowledge about:

  • dietary recommendations,
  • food sources of nutrients, or the
  • diet-disease relationship.2

How Can Parents Help?

Given the challenges of typical teen eating patterns, what does the research suggest parents can do?

1. Talk to Your Teens About Nutrition.

Talking about nutrition and the importance of a balanced food intake for physical, emotional, and intellectual health can help your teen know their options. ChooseMyPlate can help families explore healthy eating together.

2. Discuss the Impact of Skipping Meals.

You can also discuss the consequences of skipping meals on academic and athletic success. Help your teen problem-solve on how to eat healthfully at restaurants and out of the home settings.

3 Schedule Family Meals.

Parents can also schedule family meals, which are associated with higher intake of fruits and vegetables and less fatty foods and soda.

4. Help Prevent Eating Disorders.

To help prevent eating disorders and body dissatisfaction, parents can:

  • Use positive language, rather than restrictive diet language.
  • Discourage fad dieting, food restriction, skipping meals, and using diet pills.

If a teen’s eating becomes erratic or restrictive, parents should consult with their pediatrician and registered dietitian sooner rather than later.


Key Takeaways

  • Serve a variety of foods and strive for meals that include:
    • fruits and vegetables,
    • lean proteins,
    • lean dairy products, and
    • whole grains.
  • Keep language positive when talking to teens about food.
  • Help teens learn about nutrition so they can take charge of their own habits as they grow and develop.
  • Help teens limit foods that are high in sugar and unhealthy fats.
  • Occasionally incorporated less-than-healthy foods into meal plans—avoid using “forbidden food” language.


  1. Das JK, Salam RA, Thornburg KL, et al. Nutrition in adolescents: physiology, metabolism, and nutritional needs. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 2017;1393(1):21-33.
  2. Golden NH, Schneider M, Wood C; COMMITTEE ON NUTRITION; COMMITTEE ON ADOLESCENCE; SECTION ON OBESITY. Preventing Obesity and Eating Disorders in Adolescents. Pediatrics. 2016;138(3):e20161649. doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1649
  3. Wang L, Martínez Steele E, Du M, et al. Trends in Consumption of Ultraprocessed Foods Among US Youths Aged 2-19 Years, 1999-2018. JAMA. 2021;326(6):519–530.

Next Steps

If you think your teen needs assistance with their diet, schedule an appointment with a pediatrician, family medicine, or internal medicine provider. View our providers in each of these areas.


Research on healthy eating for children and teens identifies how much food from each food group is required for their growth, development, and activity. With these in mind, we created healthy recipes for you and your family to cook at home with low cost and short cook and prep times.

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