food

Everything you need to know about teenagers and nutrition, according to an expert.

Endeavour College of Natural Health
Thanks to our brand partner, Endeavour College of Natural Health

Nutrition is a sensitive topic, especially when it comes to teenagers, who are at an absolute peak of physical, emotional and mental changes. 

For parents, it can be a difficult balancing act between wanting to do what’s best for their teenager’s physical health, while not adversely affecting their mental health at the same time. 

To get a better understanding of how to ensure our teenagers are at their happiest, we spoke to Endeavour College nutrition lecturers Kerry Beake and Lisa Fiocchini.

Kerry stresses that it's important for parents to provide a supportive, judgement-free space for your teen to develop a healthy relationship with food and their body. 

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“It is important to keep in mind that teenagers are already exposed to many — often contradicting — messages around diets, health and nutrition, especially from social media and various influencers. This is also a group that faces increased risk for body image issues,” Kerry tells Mamamia

As a mum with a teenager (and two more in the making!), I had a lot of questions around nutrition for this very important stage, which Kerry and Lisa were kind enough to answer. 

If you’re a parent of teens — or coming up rapidly to being one — here’s everything you need to know about teenagers and nutrition (because the baby books don’t cover this!).

What types of food should my teenager be having in each meal?

When it comes to macros — protein, carbohydrates and fats — Kerry says there are a lot of confusing messages out there. And for teenagers, who, unlike adults, are growing and developing, additional nutrients are vital. But, she says, the ‘when’ doesn’t matter so much.

“There is no ideal time to eat these nutrients; it comes down to the individual’s needs and preferences. 

“Aiming for overall quality (more whole grains and fresh options), balance and variety will meet their nutritional needs.”  

As a rough guide, Kerry says teens should aim for five servings of vegetables, two servings of fruit, five-to-seven of grains and cereals, two-to-three of protein (lean meat, fish, eggs, poultry, nuts, seeds, legumes or beans) and three servings of dairy or a dairy alternative.

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How can I ensure my teenager is getting enough iron (especially after starting their period)?

Lisa says given the importance of iron for many bodily functions — like growth, oxygen transport, energy production, immune and brain function, musculoskeletal health and menstruation — it is essential that all teenagers are getting enough. 

“Choosing from a variety of animal and plant-based foods, and eating regular meals and snacks ensures obtaining enough iron is achievable,” she says.  

“However, for those with low iron levels or who are following a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, getting enough iron can be a little more challenging. The aim then is to improve the absorption of iron from the foods that are eaten by including foods with Vitamin C.”

My teenager is trying vegetarianism/veganism. How can I make sure their nutritional needs are still met?

A lot of teenagers want to eat a vegetarian diet for ethical or social reasons, and the good news is, a vegetarian diet easily provides good nutrition for a teen's development and growth needs. 

“Proper monitoring and supplementation are recommended if levels are low,” Lisa tells Mamamia.

As always, when making any lifestyle changes, it's important to consult a GP or qualified dietician to discuss a meal plan that works for each individual.

My teenager is often in a hurry or just does not want to eat in the morning — is it okay to skip breakfast?

If your teen is regularly not wanting to eat breaky, Lisa suggests first asking them why. For instance, are they feeling unwell upon waking? Are they up late at night and still feeling sleepy? 

“If they’re simply not hungry, it is fine if your teenager skips breakfast, as they may prefer to eat later or to graze,” she says.  

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“Support your teen to eat regularly — whatever that looks like for them.”

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Can certain foods help my teen’s acne?

Kerry says while some foods may help with healing, rebuilding and clearing acne, it may not be a cure all, because the fluctuating hormones present during puberty are a common cause.

“If your teen is motivated, improving their overall intake by shifting to include more whole fresh foods that stabilise blood glucose levels is important,” she says. 

“Additionally, encouraging your teen to reduce their intake of fatty and fried foods, sugary drinks and lollies, packet chips and other types of processed foods allows for more stable blood glucose levels,” Lisa adds.

My teenager does not eat much meat but does like fish (like tinned tuna and salmon). How much is safe to eat in a week?

“Tinned fish can be a handy source of protein and also provide some added Omega 3s,” Lisa says. 

“A few times a week is fine based on Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) recommendations. If this is the only source of protein or iron they’re consuming, aim to include other plant-based sources of protein and iron such as legumes.”

Image: Canva.

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A lot of my teenager’s friends drink energy drinks. Should I be concerned if my kid does the same?

The energy drink craze is a big concern for a lot of parents, and Kerry says the fact they’re often marketed towards this age group makes them all the more appealing — but they can be habit forming. 

She suggests parents continue to provide plenty of healthy food and drink options, as well as having a discussion with your teen about how energy drinks make them feel. 

“Encourage your teen to eat well and eat enough,” she says. 

My teenager plays a lot of sport, how can we ensure they are getting adequate nutrition? 

“For regular levels of sports activity, you will want to increase their overall nutrient intake with consideration for quality protein, carbohydrates, and fats, and ensure they increase their water intake to compensate for perspiration,” Lisa says. 

“For high-intensity sports, this can mean more than 2000 kJ of extra high quality whole foods just to keep up with their energy expenditure,” Kerry adds.

How much exercise should my teenager get each day at a minimum? Is walking to and from school enough?

It’s recommended that teens get at least 60 minutes of exercise a day. 

“Adding in walking the dog, riding a bike or some other physical activity they enjoy could help them meet their minimum daily requirements,” she suggests. 

My teenager is fussy about fruit and vegetables. Should they be taking supplements or a multivitamin?

Lisa says consuming nutrients through food is the best option for teens. However, if they’re particularly fussy, she suggests asking: 

  • Is there anyone else in the family who doesn’t eat their fruit and vegetables (is this a learned behaviour that can be augmented with good role modelling)?  
  • Are there at least three different vegetables available to them each day to try?
  • Is fruit always available and accessible?
  • Has your teen tried a variety of fruits and vegetables prepared in different ways?  

“If you’re still having trouble encouraging your teen to consume fruits and veggies, speak with your GP about checking specific nutrient levels for your teen and seek guidance from a nutrition professional to supplement based on those findings,” she says.

My teenager has trouble falling asleep and often wakes during the night. What types of food can improve sleep quality?  

“Hormonal fluctuations along with screen time and lack of exercise may influence sleep more than nutrition,” Lisa says.

“Limiting or avoiding stimulus foods like coffee and high sugar lollies as well as caffeinated drinks in the evening is recommended.”

She also recommends consuming foods like a banana with Greek yoghurt, a turkey or chicken wholegrain sandwich, or peanut butter on wholegrain crackers as an evening snack to help trigger hormones required for sleep.

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As we head towards the cooler weather, I’m worried about my teenager picking up viruses at school. How can we support their immune system through their intake of food?

“Supporting the immune system to do the best job it can starts with being realistic about what we can achieve with food including knowing that getting sick is not a failure,” Lisa tells Mamamia.

However, foods with an antioxidant effect including fruits and vegetables, being sure to eat enough food for energy and normal function and drinking enough water can help support a healthy immune system.  

How will my teenager’s nutritional and exercise needs change throughout their teen years?

“Generally speaking, a teenager’s dietary needs are influenced by the rapid periods of growth they experience which require not only additional energy but also a variety of nutrients to support that growth and development,” Kerry says.

“For instance, not only are their bones growing, they are also increasing in density. Bone density is maximised during the teenage years and will carry your teen through the rest of their life.”

In addition to this the teen brain’s nutritional needs are high. Kerry says it’s important to encourage physical exercise that increases the breathing rate and is sustained for at least 60 minutes a day, as well as stretching and weight-bearing exercises which are just as beneficial. 

When making dietary changes for your teenager, ensure you take the time to discuss these changes with a qualified nutritionist. 

Are you keen on learning more about teenagers and nutrition, or are interested in a career in the health industry? Explore Endeavour College for information about their range of courses in Natural Health.

Feature Image: Getty.

Endeavour College of Natural Health
With 6 campuses nationally, and a robust digital education platform, Endeavour College of Natural Health are the largest private Higher Education provider of natural medicine courses in the Southern Hemisphere. They're the best at it because it’s all they do – and have been doing it for 45 years. Check out their courses here