Healthy eating for teens

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Here are some helpful tips on how to meet the needs of a teen's growing body.

Key points

  • Teens need extra nutrients to support bone growth, hormonal changes and organ and tissue development, including the brain.
  • Teens should eat breakfast, drink water and limit highly processed food, sugary drinks and eating out.
  • Healthy eating habits and physical activity can help lower the risk of obesity.

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.​


Calcium is important for bone growth. If teens optimize their bone health, they have a decreased risk of 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 a daily recommended intake (DRI) of 1300 mg/day. Males of the same age meet their requirements at about 1400 mg/day. Most teens do not meet these daily requirements.

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

Food itemServing sizeAmount of calcium (mg)
Almonds¼ cup (50 ml)75
Bok choy, cooked½ cup (125 ml)85
Broccoli, cooked½ cup (125 ml)50
Figs6 dried150
Yogurt, fruit bottom¾ cup (175 g)215 to 280
Yogurt, plain¾ cup (175 g)265 to 320
Cheese50g355 to 435
Milk1 cup (250 ml)300 to 320
Orange juice fortified with calcium½ cup (125 ml)150
Rice or soy beverage, fortified1 cup (250 ml)300
Soybeans, cooked½ cup (125 ml)90
White beans½ cup (125 ml)100
Salmon, canned with bones3oz180
Sardines, canned with bones4180


Iron is another important nutrient for teenagers. Teens need iron as they gain lean body mass. Females also need iron when they start menstruating. 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 itemServing sizeAmount of iron (mg)
Soybeans, cooked½ cup (125 ml)4.4
Tofu, firm½ cup (125 g)6.6
Baked beans, cooked½ cup (125 ml)1.7
Chickpeas or kidney beans½ cup (125 ml)2.4 to 2.6
Lentils½ cup (125 ml)3.3
Lima/navy/pinto beans½ cup (125 ml)2.2
Almonds¼ cup (60 ml)1.5
Cashews¼ cup (60 ml)2.1
Cereal, fortified28 g2.1 to 18
Egg, hard-boiled1 large (50 g)0.59
Chicken breast, broiled100 g1.07
Beef, top sirloin, broiled100 g1.73
Apricots, dried¼ cup (60 ml)1.5
Dried figs or raisins¼ cup (60 ml)1.1
Bok choy½ cup (125 ml)0.9
Broccoli or kale½ cup (125 ml)0.6 to 0.7
Potato, baked with skin1 medium (173 g)2.3

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 tend to fail to meet their daily recommended amounts of vegetables and fruits and whole grains. In addition, teens often have increased intake of highly processed foods and foods or drinks that are high in sugar, sodium and saturated fats (see below).

How can I help my preteen or teen make healthy snacking choices?


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. The majority of teens do not eat breakfast on a regular basis.

Increased consumption of highly processed foods

This includes foods such as soft drinks, snack foods, convenience foods and desserts. Everyone should aim to decrease their intake of these foods. However, for some teens, up to one half of their energy intake is from these other foods. This is of concern as highly processed foods are often high in fat, calories and sugar but are low in vitamins and minerals.

Increased eating outside the home

Eating outside the home has increased, and a lot of the foods consumed in restaurants are high in fat and calories, especially at fast food restaurants. There has been an increased consumption of pizza, cheese burgers, and salty snacks with teens, mostly due to eating out. Teens should aim to eat more food prepared within the home, especially snacks.

Increased consumption of soft drinks 

A study looking at American youths aged 6 to 17 found soft drink consumption increased from 37 per cent in 1978 to 56 per cent 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. By doing so, they do not need to take supplements. 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 serving of meat, a half cup of tofu or a cup of milk.

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

  • Drink two to four cups of water one to two hours before physical activity.
  • Drink another two to four cups of water 10 to 15 minutes before physical activity.
  • Drink about a half cup of water every 15 minutes during physical activity.
  • Drink one to two cups of water after physical activity.
  • Remember to keep drinking water even if you don't feel thirsty.
  • Sports drinks and energy drinks are not usually necessary. For casual athletes, water is all you need.

Healthy eating tips for normal and overweight teens

  • Start by following Canada's Food Guide.
  • Increase intake of whole grains, vegetables and fruits.
  • Enjoy regular physical activity.
  • Eat three meals every day and enjoy snacks between meals.
  • Include protein-containing foods in meals and snacks.
  • Enjoy a variety of foods.
  • Choose healthy snacks such as vegetables and fruits, or baked snacks instead of fried.
  • Drink water instead of soft drinks, sugary juices or sports drinks.
  • Prepare food at home using whole grains, vegetables and fruits.
  • Limit foods high in sugar, sodium or saturated fat.
  • Eat fast food and processed foods less often.
  • Eat when you're hungry; stop when you're full.
  • Pay attention to portion sizes.
Last updated: March 23rd 2020