Healthy Diet for Adolescents (Ages 12-18)

A Guide for Parents and Caregivers

Adolescence is a time of growth and change. Teenagers need more calories and nutrients than any other age group to support their growing bodies. Yet most teens eat too many empty-calorie foods and come up short on many important nutrients. Here you will find information on your teen’s nutritional needs and practical suggestions for helping them eat a healthier diet.

Key Components of a Healthy Diet for Adolescents

Adequate Calories

Adolescents need a lot of calories to support the rapid growth that occurs during this time and to fuel their busy lives. The amount of calories that your teen needs varies depending on age, sex, and activity level. Most adolescent girls need somewhere around 2,200 calories per day, while most adolescent boys need 2,500-3,000 calories per day. In between school work, sports, and other activities, teens are often so busy they don’t have time to eat balanced meals that provide the calories and nutrients they need. Still, it is also easy to eat too many calories, especially when poor food choices are made. Over time, this can lead to excess weight and obesity. Make sure your teen gets the amount of calories they need by:
  • Providing them with a variety of nutrient-rich foods from all the different food groups
  • Limiting foods that are high in added sugar or fat, but provide little else, such as candy bars, chips, cakes, cookies, donuts, and regular soda
  • Serving reasonable portion sizes and then letting your teen have more if they are still hungry (serving too much food at one time encourages overeating)


Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for your teen. About 45%-65% of their calories should come from carbohydrates. Encourage your teen to choose healthy carbohydrate-rich foods, such as whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and milk. Limit foods that are high in refined flour or added sugar, such as white bread, non-whole grain crackers, cookies, juice, and soda.


Your teen needs protein for growth and repair, as well as to build muscle. About 15%-25% of your teen’s calories should come from protein. Good sources include poultry, lean meat, seafood, eggs, nuts, soy, legumes, and low-fat and nonfat dairy products.


Adolescents need between 25%-35% of their calories as fat. Dietary fat provides essential fatty acids that are necessary for proper growth. It also helps transport the fat soluble vitamins A , D , E , and K and maintain healthy skin. Your teen’s fat intake should come mostly from healthy fats, such as those found in vegetable oils (canola and olive oil), nuts, avocados, olives, and fatty fish (salmon, sardines, and tuna).

Vitamins & Minerals

Research shows that many adolescents, particularly girls, do not get all the vitamins and minerals they need. If you feel your teen’s diet is not as “balanced” as it could be, ask their pediatrician about multivitamin supplementation. Also, you can serve fortified breakfast cereal.While all vitamins and minerals are important, here are a few that adolescents often fall short on:
Vitamin or Mineral Importance Good Sources
Calcium Essential for building strong bones and teeth Milk, cheese, yogurt, tofu, calcium-fortified orange juice, calcium-fortified cereal, and canned salmon
Folate Important for proper growth during adolescence Orange juice, fortified breakfast cereals, bread, milk, dried beans, and lentils
Iron Necessary for transporting red blood cells; not getting enough from the diet can result in iron-deficiency anemia Meat, chicken, fish, and fortified breakfast cereal
Zinc Helps promote proper growth and sexual maturation during adolescence Chicken, meat, shellfish, whole grains, and fortified breakfast cereal
Vitamin A Necessary for proper vision, growth, and immune system functioning Carrots, fortified breakfast cereal, milk, and cheese
Vitamin D Necessary for the body to use the calcium that is consumed Fortified milk, salmon, and egg yolks—sunshine allows your body to make vitamin D, but be aware of the dangers of getting too much sun
Vitamin E Helps protect the body from damage Nuts, seeds, whole grains, spinach, and fortified breakfast cereal
Magnesium Helps regulate the heartbeat, build strong bones, and keep blood pressure within a normal range Whole grains, green vegetables, and legumes


Most adolescents do not eat enough fiber. Diets high in fiber tend to be lower in total calories, fat, and cholesterol than diets that are low in fiber. What’s more, research shows that a high fiber intake may help prevent heart disease and certain kinds of cancer. Fiber can also help prevent constipation and increase fullness following a meal. To be sure your teen is getting enough fiber, teach them to choose whole grains over refined grains, and encourage them to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Physical Activity

While it may not be a nutrient, physical activity is a key component of any healthy diet. Encourage your teen to be physically active every day. If necessary, set limits on the amount of time spent watching TV or using the computer. All physical activity counts—whether it is being involved with school sports, taking dance lessons, shooting hoops in the driveway, or walking to school. There are countless ways to get moving.

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