Fuel for Growth

Learn all about your teen's caloric and nutritional needs and why pizza and french fries aren't enough.


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What do teenagers need from food? Calories. And, for most kids, lots of them! Calories provide them with energy to study, play ball, run for the school bus, bike to a friend's house, learn the latest dance, crawl the mall, and all the other great and silly things they do each day.

Yet, even in these growth years, teens must be taught to be aware of how much they are eating. Their calorie needs vary by their age and level of activity. Clearly, a cerebral 12-year-old with an Internet addiction simply doesn't need as much food as his 16-year-old sister who runs cross-country track.

And student athletes in a training program may consume -- and use up -- 3,000 or more calories a day. For kids who mostly sit -- sit in class, sit in front of the TV or computer -- counting calories and/or exercising is the only way to avoid becoming fat. For these kids, low-fat meals and low-cal snacks are important.

Make the Calories Count

Of course, not just any calories will do. The calories your kids consume should be loaded with carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and minerals. And that means eating real food. The calories from soda or candy, for example, are called "empty calories" because they provide little nutrition.

Carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are measured in calories. Carbs and proteins provide about 4 calories per gram. Fat contributes more than twice that amount -- about 9 calories a gram. (Maybe that's why it's called fat!) All these food elements provide the essential vitamins and minerals your children need.

A healthy diet contains the nutrients and calories needed to prevent nutritional deficiencies. It provides the right balance of carbohydrates, fat, and protein to help your kids achieve their peak potential.

Your teens, now making many food decisions on their own, need real guidance from you. They should be encouraged to make sensible food choices.

Parents cannot assume that school lunches provide sound nutrition. (After all, salsa has been declared a "vegetable" in the federal school lunch program.) Nor can parents assume that the vending machines in school lobbies and cafeterias are stocked with cold fresh fruit. While some are, most sell those bright and appealing little packages of chips and candy bars.

In terms of the typical dinner, here's what you might find on tables across the nation tonight:

  • Hamburgers
  • Roast beef and mashed potatoes
  • Fried chicken with biscuits
  • Veal parmigiana
  • Stuffed pork chops with gravy

Notice the way each meal is defined by the meat being served. Nutritionists and dietitians say we must change our focus on making meat the center of a meal. Sure, meat provides lots of protein, B vitamins, and minerals. But often it also lays on the fat.

Experts suggest that you shove meat aside and put grains at the center of the plate. Using the Food Guide Pyramid, you'll see that the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests you make bread, cereal, grains, and pasta the basis of your diet. Plan on feeding your kids six to 11 servings a day.

Next, offer three to five servings of vegetables each day, and two to four servings of fruit. Include two to three servings of meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts. Provide at least two to three servings of dairy food each day -- milk, cheese, and yogurt.

Finally, offer small amounts of fats (usually butter or margarine), oils (usually for frying or in salad dressing), and sweets.

While it is agreed that all teens need a healthy, balanced diet, boys and girls have different nutritional needs. And older teens often have different caloric requirements than their younger counterparts. See what your teen needs.

Caloric Needs

  • 11 - 14 years: 2,500
  • 15 - 18 years: 3,000

Boys: Recommended Dietary Allowances

11 to 14 years
Protein, 45 grams Vitamin A, 5,000 IU Vitamin D, 400 IU Vitamin E , 10 IU Vitamin K, 45 mcg Vitamin C, 50 mg Vitamin B6, 1.7 mg Vitamin B12, 2 mcg Thiamine, 1.3 mg Riboflavin, 1.5 mg Niacin, 17 mg Folate, 150 mcg Calcium, 1,200 mg Phosphorus, 1,200 mg Magnesium 270 mg Iron, 12 mg Zinc, 15 mg Iodine, 150 mcg Selenium, 40 mcg

15 to 18 years
Protein, 59 grams Vitamin A, 5,000 IU Vitamin D, 400 IU Vitamin E, 10 IU Vitamin K, 65 mcg Vitamin C, 60 mg Vitamin B6, 2 mg Thiamine, 1.5 mg Riboflavin, 1.8 mg Niacin, 20 mg Folate, 200 mcg Vitamin B12, 2 mcg Calcium, 1,200 mg Phosphorus, 1,200 mg Magnesium, 400 mg Iron, 12 mg Zinc, 15 mg Iodine, 150 mcg Selenium, 50 mcg

Caloric Needs

The daily caloric requirement for all adolescent girls -- ages 12 - 18 -- is 2,200. But as they get older, teenage girls have different recommended dietary requirements.

Girls: Recommended Dietary Allowances

11 to 14 years
Protein, 46 grams Vitamin A, 4,000 IU Vitamin D, 400 IU Vitamin E, 8 mg Vitamin K, 45 mcg Vitamin C, 50 mg Vitamin B6, 1.4 mg Vitamin B12, 2 mcg Thiamine, 1.1 mg Riboflavin, 1.3 mg Niacin, 15 mg Folate, 150 mcg Calcium, 1,200 mg Phosphorus, 1,200 mg Magnesium, 280 mg Iron, 15 mg Zinc, 12 mg Iodine, 150 mcg Selenium, 45 mcg

15 to 18 years
Protein, 44 grams Vitamin A, 4,000 IU Vitamin D, 400 IU Vitamin E, 8 mg Vitamin K, 55 mcg Vitamin C, 60 mg Vitamin B6, 1.5 mg Vitamin B12, 2 mcg Thiamine, 1.1 mg Riboflavin, 1.3 mg Niacin, 15 mg Folate, 180 mcg Calcium, 1,200 mg Phosphorus, 1,200 mg Magnesium, 300 mg Iron, 15 mg Zinc, 12 mg

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