Ask any teen if they would like to be happier, look better, have more energy and accomplish more in school, and most would respond with an emphatic “yes.” The secret may be what they eat.  

Teenage nutrition is a huge, underappreciated facet of adolescent physical and emotional health. Beyond obvious indicators like weight gain and obesity, teen nutrition plays a critical role in the cognitive development that happens in what is arguably the most tumultuous phase of life. Sandwiched between childhood and adulthood, teenagers are forced to navigate skyrocketing expectations and societal pressures without the benefit of a fully developed brain. Many don’t realize that something as simple as feeding their brain correctly can pave the way for a smoother transition into a healthy adulthood. 

For today’s teens, empty calories are often the enemy. Roughly 40% of the calories consumed by this age group come from things like soda, fruit drinks and sugary desserts that provide no nutritional benefit. Because nutrition fuels the brain’s ability to learn new tasks and process information, poor teen nutrition impacts nearly every aspect of development, and problems such as depression, irritability, hyperactivity and anxiety emerge because external demands are met with internal constraints. Simply put, when a teen brain is starved for nutrients, it can’t support the amount of growth and development needed to keep pace. 

Instead, teens need to feed their brains real food. Here are six healthy eating lessons that are critical to adolescent development:

  1. Calories are not the enemy. Adolescents need more daily calories than at any other point in their lives. Generally, boys should consume about 2,800 calories, while girls need more like 2,200, but athletes and teens in growth spurts may require more. Remember cutting calories may also result in cutting essential nutrients, so choose calories wisely and pick nutrient-rich options to get the most out of the food you eat.
  2. Follow the half-plate rule. Half of every plate should be fruits and veggies, ideally in a variety of colors. Dark green, red and orange vegetables have high levels of nutrients teens need like vitamin C, calcium and fiber. Generally, teens should aim for two cups of fruit and three cups of veggies a day. 
  3. Be bone smart. Teens need adequate calcium to support major growth spurts during puberty, but 90% of girls and 70% of boys don’t get the recommended 1,300 mg a day. This is important because 75% of bone development happens before the early 20s, and eating calcium-rich foods helps prevent brittle bones down the line.
  4. Eat good fat. Unsaturated fat provides essential fatty acids that teens need for proper function and growth. It also helps teens absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E, which are among the most common deficiencies in teens. Good fat from things like fish, avocados and nuts should make up about 30% of a teen’s daily intake.   
  5. Carb load. About half of a teen’s daily calories should be complex carbohydrates, found in beans, whole grains and veggies. Don’t confuse these with simple carbohydrates found in candy and other processed foods, however. Complex carbs turn sugar into sustained energy, which is especially important in maintaining drive and focus. 
  6. Pack a protein punch. Protein is essential for growth, energy and tissue repair. Teens need 45 to 60 grams of protein each day from meat, fish, dairy or vegetarian sources like beans and nuts, but don’t overdo it. Many adolescents in the U.S. get twice as much protein as they need. 

Most teenagers experience a surge in appetite when they hit puberty, and too often they reach for the nearest processed food to satisfy their insatiable hunger without knowing what it is doing to their physical and emotional health. Adolescence is hard enough. Let’s teach teens to feed their brains and their bodies for success and, in the process, instill healthy eating habits that will serve them in every stage of life.