Healthy eating for teenagers

The teenage years are a time of rapid growth and development, so a healthy balanced diet is particularly important. Healthy, active young people can have large appetites. If you're a teenager, it's important to eat well-balanced meals, rather than too many snacks that are high in fat, sugar or salt.

What to eat

You should eat a healthy balanced diet that matches your energy needs. This should be made up of the five main food groups of the Eatwell Guide:

  • fruit and vegetables
  • potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates
  • beans, pulses, fish, eggs and other proteins
  • dairy and alternatives
  • oils and spreads

Fruit and vegetables

All age groups are encouraged to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables every day. Research shows that five portions a day can help prevent heart disease and some types of cancer. Fruit and vegetables are also full of vitamins, minerals and fibre and are low in fat.

A portion is about 80g. Examples of a portion include:

  • one medium-sized piece of fruit, such as an apple, orange, banana or pear
  • two small fruits, such as kiwi, satsuma or plums
  • one large slice of pineapple or melon
  • one tablespoon of dried fruit
  • three heaped tablespoons of fresh or frozen vegetables
  • one glass (roughly 150ml) of fresh fruit juice or a smoothie

Dried fruit and fruit juices or smoothies can each be counted as only one portion a day, however much you have. Both dried fruit and juices should be taken with a meal as the high sugar content can be damaging to teeth.

Potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates

Starchy foods such as bread, rice, potatoes and pasta are a good source of energy, fibre and B vitamins and should be used as the basis for meals. Choose higher-fibre, wholegrain varieties such as whole wheat pasta, brown rice, or by leaving the skin on potatoes.

Wholegrain food contains more fibre than white or refined starchy food, and often more of other nutrients. We also digest wholegrain food more slowly and can help us feel full for longer. They also help prevent constipation, protect against some cancers and reduce the risk of heart disease.

Starchy foods are also low in fat, though the butter or creamy sauces that are often added to them can have a higher fat content.

Beans, pulses, fish, eggs and other proteins

Beans, peas and lentils are good alternatives to meat because they’re naturally very low in fat, and they’re high in fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals.

Other vegetable-based sources of protein include:

  • tofu/bean curd
  • textured vegetable protein - a manufactured soy product
  • mycoprotein - a fungal protein

These are widely available in most major supermarkets.

Eggs are a convenient alternative to meat and are extremely versatile. They can be scrambled, boiled, poached or made into an omelette.  

Young people are recommended to eat two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily. Oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel and pilchards contain lots of omega 3 fatty acids and are good for heart health. Fresh, frozen and tinned fish are all good options to choose.

Meat is a good source of protein, vitamin B12 and iron. A diet rich in iron will help prevent iron deficiency anaemia which is a common condition in teenage girls. Processed meats and chicken products should be limited as they are high in fat and salt and lower in iron.

Dairy and alternatives

Milk and dairy foods (and alternatives) such as yoghurt and cheese, are important sources of calcium, vitamins A and D, B12, protein and fat. Calcium is needed to help build strong bones and for nerve and muscle function.

Vitamin D is needed to help absorb calcium and therefore plays an important part in strengthening bone.

Try to choose lower fat varieties such as semi-skimmed or skimmed milk, cottage cheese, Edam cheese and half fat cheddars. When buying dairy alternatives, such as almond or soya, go for unsweetened, calcium-fortified varieties.

Oils and spreads

Getting enough healthy fats is essential for growth and development. The best are unsaturated oils and spreads for example, rapeseed, olive or sunflower.

What to avoid

Avoid eating shark, swordfish and marlin because these contain high levels of mercury compared to other fish which, until the age of 16, might affect a young person's developing nervous system.

Foods high in fat, particularly saturated fat, sugar or salt, should only be eaten in small amounts or not very often.

From the age of 11, everyone should try to eat no more than 6g salt and 30g of sugar a day.

Healthy weight

If you are active and eating a healthy balanced diet, you should be able to maintain a healthy weight.

If you are overweight, you should stick to a balanced diet, try to cut down on foods containing sugar and fat, and get plenty of physical activity. Teenagers should be aiming for at least an hour of physical activity every day.

In particular, it's a good idea to:

  • cut down on sweets, cakes, biscuits and fizzy drinks
  • eat fewer fatty foods such as chips, burgers and fried food and processed foods such as instant noodles
  • eat regular balanced meals
  • base meals on starchy foods, choosing wholegrain varieties whenever possible
  • eat more fruit and vegetables

Aim to drink six to eight glasses of fluid every day. Water, low fat milk and sugar-free drinks including tea and coffee all count. The focus should be on eating a healthy diet and being active rather than on losing weight.

Being vegetarian or vegan

Vegetarian or vegan diets can be healthy, providing that a wide variety of foods is eaten. When meat and animal products are avoided, extra care will be needed to make sure that you get all the protein, vitamins, iron and other minerals needed.

This is particularly important if you are following a vegan diet. It's more difficult for those following a vegan diet to get all the vitamins they need especially, Vitamin B12 and riboflavin as these are found in animal food sources.

It's therefore recommended that vitamin B12 and riboflavin (another B vitamin) supplements should be taken.

Getting enough protein

Make sure you find an alternative to meat, fish and chicken as the main sources of protein. These could include:

  • pulses, such as lentils, butter beans, kidney beans and chickpeas
  • bean curd (tofu)
  • soya protein (textured vegetable protein)
  • nuts, either finely chopped or ground (unless there is a family history of allergy)
  • milk
  • cheese
  • egg

Getting enough iron

Iron is important in making red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body so it is important for teenagers to get enough iron, especially teenage girls who are at increased risk of iron deficiency anaemia.

Good sources of iron include:

  • wholegrain cereals
  • leafy green vegetables such as spinach and watercress
  • pulses
  • dried apricots or figs

Eating foods containing vitamin C with iron-rich foods can make it easier to absorb iron from our food.

You should also avoid having too much tea or coffee because it reduces the amount of iron absorbed by the body.

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