The Adolescent Appetite – Healthy Eating Tips for Tweens and Teens

Jan 18, 2024 | Children's Health

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Fueling our kids’ growth with nutritious food is a constant for parents. As our tweens and teens gain independence helping them develop and maintain healthy eating habits puts a new spin on the constant “what’s for dinner” question.

In this ParentingU podcast episode, Lisa Le, MD, pediatrician with Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Health who practices in Prairieville, walks us through how puberty – and growth spurts – impact tweens’ and teens’ nutrition needs. A parent of three – including twin teens, Dr. Le also offers valuable insights and provides practical tips to foster positive family eating habits at home and on-the-go.

The Puberty Puzzle 

Growth spurts and development change the dietary needs of adolescents. Puberty triggers significant hormonal changes that can impact appetite and metabolism. During puberty tween and teen bodies need increased nutrients for optimal growth and development. 

The caloric needs of tweens and teens depend on their level of activity and gender. 

On average, girls should consume about 1800 to 2000 calories per day, and boys should consume between 2200 to 2400 calories per day, Dr. Le says. Those needs stay the same until they reach their adult heights.

“So, for girls, being that they start puberty earlier and probably end it earlier than boys, around 15 or 16 years old, their caloric needs have probably stabilized,” she says. “For boys, it’s different, since they can still grow between 18 and 21. But if their exercise level stays pretty consistent, their caloric intake should stay steady too.”

Choosing Better Snacks

Hormones impact appetite throughout life, but for teenagers who don’t get enough sleep, often don’t have enough time to eat breakfast or have a sit-down meal with their family, a central part of their nutrition comes down to picking better snacks.

“A healthier snack is a little meal, so protein is very important,” Dr. Le says. “Try not to do so much processed meat as your protein, but maybe a lean turkey or chicken.”

When planning ahead for meals on the go – like breakfast in the car or between activities, Dr. Le says to remember other protein packed options like a boiled egg or cheese. 

Helping your teen know their schedule – and the tricky parts of the week when hunger will strike when they aren’t close to a fridge stocked with healthy options – can help them remember to have a snack close at hand.

“Always try to prepare the day before, if I know they have a football game or if they have dance practice, we try to prep the fruits and vegetables – have it ready and just grab it the next day,” Dr. Le says. “Planning is a big part of teenage life, and if you don’t plan that’s where those bad habits start picking up.”

Carbs Give You Power

Don’t forget about carbohydrates. Avoiding them entirely is a recipe for disaster. Carbs are critical, especially before any kind of sporting event or physical activity. 

“Before a big, long test, whether the ACT or SAT, it’s always wise to have a carbohydrate before the test because that gives your brain power,” Dr. Le says. 

Helping Tweens and Teens Listen to Their Bodies

When your tween or teen binges on cereal or only eats a bag of chips or candy for breakfast before school, help them reflect on how that made their body feel through the day. Encourage them to try the next time to incorporate some protein and better nutrients.

“They will realize if you eat a whole bag of candy, yes you get that big high sugar rush for an hour, but then you crash and are so tired with brain fog,” Dr. Le says. “A lot of kids who are used to that fog, when they do start changing their habits and daily exercise activity, everything improves in the long run.”

For kids who aren’t hungry in the morning?

“I tell them you better pack a protein bar or a cereal bar because more than likely you will be hungry before lunch,” Dr. Le says. “Just takes some bites in between classes to make it to lunch.”

Kids may feel more ownership over their eating when they’re part of the meal prep process. 

“I get my teenagers involved in grocery shopping,” Dr. Le says. “I ask them what they want for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the coming week.” On weeks when her teens can’t make the weekly shop with her, she has them text her what they want. 

Getting them involved in choosing the fruits, vegetables, meat and snacks they want will make them more likely to eat what you buy. And the conversation offers a chance to talk through making healthier choices and substitutions. 

Remember teens can get in the kitchen and cook for the family, a lifesaver for busy parents and a developmentally appropriate skill everyone needs to learn how to do.

Choosing Better Lunches

For the times when they don’t have healthy options available, helping tweens and teens learn to choose as wisely as possible can set them up for better eating habits in the long run. 

“I’m not saying that they have to be healthy 24/7, but if they’re going to pick the pizza and the fries, that’s probably not the wisest choice,” Dr. Le says. “Really it’s just teaching your kids to make better choices.” 

Have what you want and add what you need is a nutrition tip that has gained traction online, and Dr. Le says it can work if teens would remember it.

“There are pizzas now that have vegetables on them, and I think that’s a wise choice if you’re going to be eating pizza,” she says. Teens are going to eat fast food, but Dr. Le encourages them to choose healthier options such as grilled chicken over fried. “I do think if you are going to pick something unhealthy it’s a wise thing to add something healthy to it, whether a fruit or vegetable.”

The Dinner Time Scramble

After-school hunger is real, and Dr. Le and her family try to eat dinner early to get some healthy, nutritious food into her teens when they’re hungriest. 

“Look at your plate as a circle, and half of that plate should be your fruits and vegetables,” Dr. Le says. “Then a quarter should be lean protein and the last quarter is going to be your carbohydrate, meaning potatoes, rice or bread.”

For protein, Dr. Le recommends looking to the sea.

“I think fish is such an underused protein,” she says. “I’m very lucky that my kids do like fish. I can go through salmon for days and days.”

On nights when you dine at a restaurant, Dr. Le suggests steering teens away from typical kids’ menus. Encourage them to explore healthier options from the regular menu, which promotes better choices and encourages a more mature approach to dining.

Habits for Healthier Body Image

In today’s world of social media that includes heavy photo editing and filters, adolescents are exposed to unrealistic images that can impact their own body image and sense of self-worth. In addition to helping tweens and teens develop media literacy skills and providing guardrails with screentime, Dr. Le recommends parents focus on well-being over conforming to societal standards. 

“Internalize what is ideal for you, which may not be ideal for your best friend and definitely not for the rest of the girls in your class,” Dr. Le recommends. “If you can instill in them a healthy diet and healthy lifestyle where they’re not as sedentary as the majority of the population is, then they can have that healthy body image.”

Getting outside and moving more are Dr. Le’s top recommendations, especially for students who have spent hours and hours already inside at school. “Those kinds of little habits can definitely get reinforced by parents every day, and then hopefully they’ll continue into adulthood.”

Myth Busting

Diets don’t help you lose weight, Dr. Le says.

“The majority of people who are on diets end up gaining back that weight in less than two years,” she says. Then a quarter of those gain more weight than they lost from the diet. “So, diets are really not the key to staying healthy. It’s changing your daily lifestyle, your habits that’s going to last and sustain throughout your whole life.”

Artificial sweeteners in drinks reduce calories, but they are not always the best. “In the long run studies have shown artificial sweeteners can increase risk of stroke, heart disease and death overall.”

Food choices aren’t enough – like everyone, kids need to incorporate activity to feel their best and to develop and grow. 

“It’s finding the different things that teenagers will like to do,” Dr. Le says. “And if videogames are their preferred option, it’s going to be cutting off that screen time, which includes phone, iPad, TV, video games – to less than two hours per day.”

She recommends that screen time limit can get incorporated into an entire household – not just the kids but the whole family can get involved. “It’s not too late; you can start now,” Dr. Le says. “Habits can begin anew anytime.”

By understanding tweens’ and teens’ unique needs, establishing healthy routines and involving them in decision-making, parents can contribute to their children’s overall well-being and instill habits that will last a lifetime.

Have questions about your tween or teen’s nutritional needs or anything else? Connect with an exceptional pediatric provider. Find more episodes of ParentingU wherever you get your podcasts, including YouTube.

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