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Healthy Eating for Teens

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The teen years are a time of rapid growth. They need extra nutrients to support bone growth, hormonal changes, and organ and tissue development, including the brain. The two main nutrients of concern for teenagers are calcium and iron.

Importance of calcium

Calcium is important for bone growth. If teens optimize their bone health, they have a decreased risk of teen fractures and of developing osteoporosis during adulthood. Females are particularly at risk if they do not meet their calcium requirements. Females aged 13 to 17 have an intake of approximately 1000 mg/day while the daily recommended intake (DRI) for this age group is 1300 mg/day. Males of the same age meet their requirements at about 1400 mg/day. The low calcium intake in females is due to the low intake of milk and other dairy products. To meet the DRI for calcium, teens should follow Canada's Food Guide for Healthy Eating's recommendation of 3 to 4 servings of milk products per day. Keep in mind, though, that calcium is not just found in dairy products.

The following chart lists various dairy and non-dairy sources of calcium:

Food Item

Serving Size

Amount of Calcium (mg)


¼ cup (50 ml)


Bok choy, cooked

½ cup (125 ml)


Broccoli, cooked

½ cup (125 ml)



6 dried


Yogurt, fruit bottom

¾ cup (175 g)

215 to 280

Yogurt, plain

¾ cup (175 g)

265 to 320



355 to 435


1 cup (250 ml)

300 to 320

Orange juice fortified with calcium

½ cup (125 ml)


Rice or soy beverage, fortified

1 cup (250 ml)


Soybeans, cooked

½ cup (125 ml)


White beans

½ cup (125 ml)


Salmon, canned with bones



Sardines, canned with bones



Importance of iron

Iron is another important nutrient for teenagers. Females need iron when they start menstruating; males need it as they gain lean body mass. On average, male teens meet their iron requirements with little difficulty. However, females aged 13 to 17 barely meet their requirements of 15 mg per day. 

Females should try to increase their iron intake with some of the following suggestions:

Food item

Serving size

Amount of iron (mg)

Soybeans, cooked

½ cup (125 ml)


Tofu, firm

½ cup (125 g)


Baked beans, cooked

½ cup (125 ml)


Chickpeas or kidney beans

½ cup (125 ml)

2.4 to 2.6


½ cup (125 ml)


Lima/navy/pinto beans

½ cup (125 ml)



¼ cup (60 ml)



¼ cup (60 ml)


Cereal, fortified

28 g

2.1 to 18

Egg, hard-boiled

1 large (50 g)


Chicken breast, broiled

100 g


Beef, top sirloin, broiled

100 g


Apricots, dried

¼ cup (60 ml)


Dried figs or raisins

¼ cup (60 ml)


Bok choy

½ cup (125 ml)


Broccoli or kale

½ cup (125 ml)

0.6 to 0.7

Potato, baked with skin

1 medium (173 g)


Food habits

Along with physical changes, teens become more independent as they grow. Dietary options are one of the first decisions teens start making on their own. However, some teens tend to make poor food choices. Overall, teens fail to meet their daily recommended food servings from the four food groups in Canada's Food Guide. In addition, teens often increase their intake of foods from the 'other' food group (see below).

There are four major food habits of concern:

Skipping breakfast

Breakfast is an important meal of the day as it helps to ensure daily nutrient needs are being met. It also improves school performance and helps maintain a healthy weight. More than half of male teens and more than two-thirds of female teens do not eat breakfast on a regular basis.

Increased foods from the 'other' food group

This category includes foods such as fats and oils, soft drinks, snack foods, and desserts. People should eat the least amount of servings from this group. However, about 27% to 33% of energy intake for teens is from the 'other' food group. This is of concern as these foods are often high in fat and calories and low in vitamins and minerals.

Increased eating outside the home

Eating outside the home has increased, however the concern is the majority of foods consumed in restaurants are considered to be 'fast food'. Fast foods are generally high in fat and calories. There has been an increased consumption of pizza, cheese burgers, and salty snacks with teens, mostly due to eating out.

Increased soft drink consumption

A study looking at American youths aged 6 to 17 found soft drink consumption increased from 37% in 1978 to 56% in 1998. The increase in soft drink consumption could be attributed to the increase in restaurant eating. 

Active teens

Active teens can get all the nutrients they need to play sports by following Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating. By doing so, they do not need to take supplements. An athletic teen should consume carbohydrates, some protein, and a little fat. Active teens may need a little more protein than inactive teens; however, this can be accomplished through diet alone. In fact, some protein supplements offer the same amount of protein found in a cup of milk or a serving of meat.

Water is also important for active teens. Physical activity can make a teen dehydrated. Here are some tips on staying hydrated:

  • Drink 2 to 4 cups of water 1 to 2 hours before physical activity.
  • Drink another 2 to 4 cups of water 10 to 15 minutes before physical activity.
  • Drink about ½ cup of water every 15 minutes during physical activity.
  • Drink 1 to 2 cups of water after physical activity.
  • Remember to keep drinking water even if you don't feel thirsty.

Healthy eating tips for normal and overweight teens

  • Start by following Canada's Food Guide for Healthy Eating.
  • Enjoy a variety of foods from each of the 4 food groups.
  • Increase intake of whole grains, vegetables, and fruits.
  • Choose lower-fat milk products, leaner meats, and other low fat foods.
  • Enjoy regular physical activity.
  • Eat 3 meals every day and enjoy low fat snacks between meals.
  • Choose healthy snacks such as vegetables and fruits, or baked instead of fried snacks.
  • Drink low fat milk or water instead of soft drinks, sugary juices, or sports drinks.
  • Eat fast food and processed foods less often.
  • Eat when you're hungry; stop when you're full.
  • Don't overeat; pay attention to portion sizes.

Key points

  • Teens need extra nutrients to support bone growth, hormonal changes, and organ and tissue development, including the brain.
  • Calcium is an important nutrient for teens. It helps bone growth. Along with dairy products, calcium is found in almonds, cooked broccoli, cooked bok choy, and figs.
  • Iron is also an important nutrient for teens. Iron can be found in soybeans, baked beans, lentils, as well as broccoli and bok choy.
  • All teens, including active teens, will get their nutrient needs by following the recommended servings in the Canadian Food Guide.
  • To eat healthy, teens should always eat breakfast, while limiting junk food, soft drinks, and eating out.
  • Healthy eating habits and physical activity can help lower the risk of obesity.

Kellie Welch, RD


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