Healthy food choices and eating habits are important at all stages but vital for teens. Because of the changes taking place in your body, your total nutrient needs are higher during teenage than any other time in your life cycle. Nutrition and physical growth are closely related. Adequate nutrition is a must for achieving your full growth potential.
Naturally, most teens have increased appetites so their bodies can get the extra nutrition they need for the growth spurts. This is the stage when you may be changing your food and eating habits too. You’re also likely to choose food for reasons not related to nutrition, like peer pressure and changing social activities and your choices may not be the best ones.
Carbohydrates, Proteins and Fats
Your level of physical activity and stage of development, rather than age, determines how much you need to eat. Carbohydrates, proteins and fats, all play an important role in your diet. Teens generally consume approximately 53% of their calories as carbohydrates. Foods that contribute the most carbohydrate to their diets include bread, soft drinks, milk, cereals, cakes, cookies, donuts and sugar. While being rich in carbohydrates, all of them are not healthy foods.
Regular healthy meals and snacks should include carbohydrate-rich foods like bread, rice, pasta, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, lean meats, poultry, eggs, legumes and nuts. These ensure keeping sugar levels adequate, preventing sudden energy crashes.
Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids. Your body produces most of these naturally. However, there are nine essential amino acids which your body cannot make. These must come from the food you eat.
Teens need protein for building and repairing muscles, ensuring hair and skin health, fighting off infections and carrying oxygen in the blood. Proteins also help with building enzymes, hormones and vitamins. Meat, chicken, eggs, fish, milk, cheese and yogurt are all good sources of protein and they provide the nine essential amino acids.
If you are a vegetarian there are many options for protein. They include beans, legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds, whole grains, soya, quinoa and vegetables. Sprouts of alfalfa, green gram, chickpeas and soya beans are highly nutritious and rich in protein.
The human body requires dietary fat and essential fatty acids for normal growth and development. It is recommended that adolescents consume no more than 30% of these from fats. Major fats in a teen’s diet come from milk, meats, cheese and butter.
Healthy dietary fats promote proper skin and hair development. They also help absorb essential vitamins and minerals.
Micronutrients, including calcium and iron, are critical for you.
Calcium helps you reach peak bone density and build strong bones. The skeleton accounts for at least 99% of the body stores of calcium. The gain in skeletal weight is most rapid during teen growth spurt. About 45% of the adult skeletal mass is gained during adolescence. Because of the dramatic increase in skeletal growth, calcium needs during teens are greater than in other stages.
Milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream are major sources of calcium in a teen’s diet. Juices, breakfast bars, breads and cereals are calcium-fortified. Soft drink intake by teens often displaces the consumption of nutrient-rich beverages such as milk and juices.
Your bones begin to stop taking in calcium deposits by the time you reach your early adulthood. That is why it is critical to get enough calcium as a teenager. If you don’t meet your calcium requirements now, you have higher risks of brittle bones, bone breakage, stunted bone growth and osteoporosis later in life.
Increasing blood volumes and growing muscle mass means you need more iron during your teens. Iron has an important role to play in muscle function, energy creation and brain development. It aids red blood cells’ ability to carry and circulate oxygen throughout your body. So, if you are not getting enough iron through the food you eat during the day, you’ll probably feel tired and lethargic.
Iron is a mineral that is naturally present in many foods. Red meat, eggs, poultry, fish, shellfish, dark green vegetables like spinach collards and kale, nuts, black beans, black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, other cooked or dried beans, rice and cereals are also good sources of iron.
A vegetarian diet can provide enough iron too if you eat iron-rich vegetarian alternatives to meats. They include green leafy vegetables, legumes like beans and lentils, whole-grains and fortified cereals. Getting the right amount of iron can improve your performance in sports and in studies.
Iron deficiency leads to anaemia. Anaemia occurs when you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells. Without sufficient red blood cells enough oxygen does not reach all parts of your body. This causes you to feel weak and tired. Your skin may become pale especially around the hands, nails and eyelids, your heart beat may quicken, you may become irritable, lose appetite and feel dizzy, too.
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals are called micro-nutrients because your body needs only tiny amounts of them. Yet failing to get even those small quantities of vitamins and minerals, can cause serious diseases. Lack of vitamin C, found in fresh fruits and vegetables, can cause scurvy which results in the bleeding of gums and listlessness. Vitamin A deficiency can cause blindness. Deficiency of vitamin D can cause rickets — a condition marked by soft, weak bones that can lead to skeletal deformities such as bowlegs. Your body is designed to get the vitamin D it needs when your bare skin is exposed to sunlight. A combination of calcium, vitamin D, vitamin K and phosphorus ensures strong bones.
Teens need to drink plenty of fluids. Water is obviously the best source (easily available, too) of liquid and supplies fluid without calories. Other fluid sources are milk, milk drinks, fruit juices and soft drinks.
As a teenager you will be exposed to periodic food fads and slimming trends, and may fall into the habit of skipping meals, and develop irregular eating habits. One of the most frequently missed meals is breakfast. Breakfast plays an important role in providing energy and nutrients needed after your overnight fast. It also helps concentration and performance in school/college.
Snacks are an integral part of your meal pattern. You cannot eat large quantities of food at one go and you often become hungry before the next meal. Small mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks can help meet your energy needs of the day.
You need about 3000 (for boys) and 2500 (girls) calories daily. But if you are overeating in general or indulging in a lot of junk, over-nutrition and weight gain can become a problem.
Excess weight gained during adolescence does not go away automatically, even after the teen growth spurts. An obese teen has 80% chances of becoming an obese adult. That raises long-term risks of heart disease, diabetes and sleep problems. Teens who are obese also tend to have lower self-esteem and higher emotional ups and downs.
Gratian Vas is a former teacher, headmaster, principal and resource person for educational institutions. In a career spanning 50 years, he has written over 150 educational and general books for young readers.