When my boys first hit adolescence, I noticed that the kitchen was devoid of food. I thought, “Gee, I’m not buying enough food.” So the next time I went to the store, I bought more food. Two days later, the kitchen was empty again. So I bought more. It didn’t take long to recognize the vacuum cleaner effect. They would eat as much as I would buy. When it was gone, they would stand at the refrigerator with the door open, hoping something would appear. Then they would close it, only to open it again one minute later, thinking they must have missed something.
When children reach puberty, the demand for food intake increases dramatically in response to growth hormone released into the body. Boys require an average of 2700 calories per day, and girls require slightly less: 2200 per day. (Learn more about caloric requirements.) All teens require a adequate protein and calcium to build bones, muscles, and other vital body parts.
With all of the activities our kids participate in these days, it is difficult to schedule that family dinner, and they are least likely to eat healthy foods. Fast food is quick and convenient. Vending machines are often available at schools. And mothers jump in to please their palates with sweets and treats. Despite their elevated nutrient needs, however, adolescents are the age group least likely to eat breakfast. Their need for sleep increases dramatically, and they often skip breakfast for that little extra bit of shut-eye. Among teenage girls, skipping meals (especially breakfast) is a strategy often used to help lose weight, despite research which shows eating breakfast is actually associated with LOWER body weight than skipping breakfast.
- Iron: The most common nutritional problem facing today’s teens is iron deficiency. Red blood cells carry oxygen to all parts of the body, including the brain. Iron is a key component of red bloods cells, required to bind oxygen. Not enough iron equals not enough oxygen-carrying red blood cells, which can result in weakness, poor growth, poor concentration and moodiness–symptoms of anemia. Iron requirements are at the highest during growth spurts, and even higher for girls once they begin to menstruate. The teenage years have a reputation for being difficult. Mood swings, irrational thoughts, and poor judgment might seem natural, but irritable, tired, and grumpy teenagers may be anemic. Get them in for a check up.
- Calcium: Most teens don’t get enough calcium, and active teens who don’t eat nutritious well-balanced meals need to make a special effort to obtain this critical nutrient. Teens have the highest calcium requirement of any age group: 1,300mg per day (the equivalent of over 4 servings of dairy!), and most fall well beneath this threshold. The teenage years represent a brief window of critical bone mass accumulation, and teens in particular are like calcium sponges: they absorb most of what they take in and excrete very little. As a result, meeting the daily requirements through regular intake of milk, cheese, yogurt, calcium-fortified cereals and juices, and calcium-rich greens like broccoli, collards and bok choy, is critical to setting your teen up for denser bones as they enter adulthood when bone mass begins to decline. Calcium supplements are also available in caramel and chocolate varieties for teens who fall short in their diets, and can help make getting calcium a bit more palatable.
- Fad diets: Teenagers, girls in particular, may be attracted to fad diets. These are almost always too limited in calories and nutrients to be healthy for a growing individual. If a teen wants to diet, the first stop should be the doctor’s office. Even Weight Watchers will not allow anyone under 18 to join without a note from a physician. Severe dieting is often a precursor to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, and often even switching to a vegetarian diet can be a sign of trouble among teens.
Whatever your lifestyle, look for ways to assure that your teens get proper nutrition. Do not force children or teens to eat things they do not like, but rather offer substitutes that provide the same amount of nutrition. In some cases, a daily vitamin and mineral supplement may be needed to help meet dietary gaps. Modeling good eating habits at the family dinner table will also help your teen to become a good consumer of nutrition when mom or dad is no longer fixing the meals and packing the lunches.