The rapid growth spurt that occurs as children move into adolescence and throughout the teenage years means that they need plenty of energy and nutrients. Unfortunately, this is also the time where many kids develop a taste for takeaway, fast food or even fad diets and therefore may not be consuming the right nutrients that their growing bodies need. In fact, it's been found that teenagers between the ages of 14 and 16 eat only half of the recommended servings of fruit and vegetables every day and one in three buys unhealthy takeaway on a daily basis.1 Outlined below are some of the dietary requirements for high school children and how you can encourage healthy eating habits in these important developmental years.
Important nutrients for teenagers
- Protein – Teenage boys need approximately 65g of protein a day and teenage girls need 45g.2 The densest sources of protein include the teenage favourites beef, chicken, turkey, pork, fish, eggs and cheese. If your child is a vegetarian then it's important to encourage plenty of beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, nuts and seeds, which will help provide the protein they need.
- Carbohydrates - Carbohydrates are converted into glucose, the body's main source of fuel but not all carbs are created equal. There are complex carbohydrates often found in plant foods and simple carbohydrates such as sugar, honey and soft drinks. For sustained energy, complex carbohydrates should be included in your teenager's diet. Complex carbohydrates are often rich in fibre therefore filling, and provide vitamins and minerals too. Encourage whole grain cereal or toast for breakfast, include whole meal sandwiches or a pasta salad in their lunch box and serve quinoa or brown rice with dinner.
- Fats – A certain amount of fat is necessary for supplying energy and assisting with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E and K. Your high school aged child is more than likely obtaining enough of the not-so-favourable fats from takeaway and junk food, but this should be balanced with good fats from fish, nuts and seeds.
- B vitamins – B vitamins are needed to release energy from the food we eat. B's can be found in a wide variety of foods including whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, and these should be encouraged as much as possible. You can't always control what your teenager eats during the day or even on their way home from school, but try and serve wholesome meals for breakfast and dinner to help make up for any shortfalls.
- Calcium – Calcium is one of the most essential nutrients for high school children. The majority of peak bone mass is formed in the teenage years and maximising bone growth at this time can help prevent problems later on. It's recommended that teenage boys and girls have 1300mg of calcium daily.2 Milk and milk products are the most concentrated sources of calcium but other good options include canned salmon and sardines, and green leafy vegetables. Also offer healthy fruit smoothies with yoghurt and low-fat milk, or calcium-fortified milk alternatives such as soy, oat or almond.
- Iron – Iron is very important for adolescents, especially teenage girls who have started menstruating. If iron intake is inadequate it can result in poorer mental performance as well as lead to symptoms of fatigue, headaches and irritability. It's recommended that boys between the ages of 14 and 18 have 11mg daily and girls between the ages of 14 and 18 have 15mg.2 This can be achieved by eating lean meat, poultry and seafood or vegetarian alternatives such as lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, tofu, spinach and iron-fortified cereals and other products.3
- Zinc – Zinc is another vital nutrient for teens, especially boys as it's essential for the normal functioning of the male reproductive system and plays a role in bone and immune health. It's suggested that teenage boys have 13mg of zinc daily and teenage girls have 7mg.2 To help your child meet their zinc needs, offer baked beans on toast or oats for breakfast, cashews and almonds as a snack, pop a chicken sandwich in their lunchbox and include beef, pork or chickpeas with their dinner.4
Despite your best efforts, it can be hard to encourage a well-rounded diet in high school age children and many may fall short of their nutrient requirements. A multivitamin may be a good way of topping up their intake of vitamins and minerals to support their healthy growth and development.