Weighing In: What Should My Teenager Eat?

Heather Reese Health Guide
  • Question: I am worried that my teenage daughter is not eating a healthy diet, what should she be eating?


    Heather: I know it's not easy to monitor a teenager's diet! Teens are increasingly independent and frequently dine out with friends instead of at home with the family. Unfortunately, when they aren't under the watchful eye of mom and dad, teens don't always make the healthiest food choices. Eating out with friends, stopping at fast food restaurants and eating out of vending machines all lend to poor eating habits in teens. In fact, statistics show that teenager's diets are high in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and sugar.

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    This is particularly concerning because the obesity rates among children and teens continue to increase. Research shows that almost 20 percent of teens aged 12 to 19 are overweight, which means they are at higher risk for serious diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Teaching your teen to make healthy food choices when eating away from home can not only help prevent obesity but can also help her feel energized, grow, build strong bones and stay alert in class.


    Adults play an important role in teaching children and teens the benefits of healthy eating and physical activity. However, it is not always easy to know what to say and how to approach this topic with your child. Below are a few common areas for improvements in teenager's diets and suggestions for ways to promote proper nutrition for your daughter.


    Balanced Diet


    A healthy diet is a well-balanced one that includes all of the food groups. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are a great guide to use when teaching your daughter which foods should make up the bulk of her diet.


    The dietary guidelines recommend a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and whole grains, such as whole wheat breads, rice, pastas and whole grain cereals. You should also encourage your teen to eat lean meats like white meat chicken without the skin and fish rather than higher fat varieties. It is also important to limit your total fat intake and focus on healthy fats like olive, canola and peanut oils. However, fat does play an important role in the body so make sure you your daughter understands that some types of fats are healthy.


    Breakfast of Champions


    Studies have shown that children who eat breakfast are more alert and perform better in school. You might be thinking "easier said than done" and I understand. I remember being a teenager and I always chose a few extra minutes of sleep over sitting down for breakfast. So try to work with your daughter to come up with healthy breakfast options that she can grab on her way out the door. Try some of these healthy selections:

    • Whole-wheat toast with peanut butter and banana slices
    • Low-fat yogurt and berries
    • Low-fat yogurt with low-fat granola
    • Hard boiled egg and whole-wheat toast


    Build Strong Bones


    Calcium is so important for teenagers, particularly girls, because they are building bone mass. We only lay bone mass until age 30, which is the age when our bones are their absolute strongest. After that our bone mass slowly diminishes. So the more bone mass we lay while we are younger, the stronger our bones will be throughout our life. Unfortunately research shows that teens aren't getting enough calcium, which is needed to build strong bones and prevent osteoporosis later in life.


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    Encourage your child to get at least three servings of these calcium-rich foods:

    • 1 cup of low-fat milk
    • 1 cup of soy milk with added calcium
    • 1 cup of low-fat or fat-free yogurt
    • 1 ½ ounces of low-fat cheese
    • 2 ounces of fat-free cheese


    Eating Out


    It's unrealistic to believe that your teen isn't going to eat out when she's with her friends. And unfortunately, she is likely to frequent fast food restaurants. So talk to your daughter about portion size and choosing nutritious foods when eating at restaurants. Here are some tips you can give her:

    • Avoid the large or "value-sized" meals
    • Choose a grilled chicken sandwich or small plain hamburger
    • Use mustard instead of mayonnaise
    • Limit fried foods and take the skin off of chicken
    • Order salads with low-fat salad dressing
    • Choose diet soda, water or low-fat milk instead of regular soda


    Hit the Iron


    Teens need iron to support their growth and development. And teen girls need it to replace blood during menstruation. Encourage your daughter to choose iron-rich foods such as:

    • Fish and shellfish
    • Lean beef
    • Iron-fortified cereals
    • Enriched and whole-grain breads
    • Dried beans and peas
    • Spinach


    Practice What You Preach


    Despite your best efforts to teach your daughter how to make healthy food choices, if you don't practice what you preach your daughter is not likely to take the lessons to heart. Encourage her to eat three meals every day and to choose healthy snacks over potato chips, cookies and other junk food by doing so yourself. Sit down to a nutritious, well-balanced family dinner at the kitchen table or in the dining room. Stock the fridge with healthy snacks like low-fat dairy products, fruits and vegetables and bottled water so both you and your teenager have healthy options.


    Teens learn by watching and emulating their parents, even if they won't admit it. You can help your daughter develop healthy habits by being aware of your own food and activity choices and being a healthy role model.


    This is a great time to talk to your daughter about a healthy lifestyle. She's going to continue to be more and more independent and she'll be going off to college before you know it. The younger we learn healthy habits, the more likely we are to carry them into adulthood. Take this opportunity to teach your daughter lessons that will last her a lifetime.

Published On: October 22, 2007

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