Neither sex fares well when it comes to eating enough foods rich in zinc, a mineral that is integral to normal growth and sexual development. Two in three teenage boys and three in four teenage girls fail to meet the recommended dietary allowance of 15 milligrams and 12 milligrams a day, respectively. A shortage of zinc weakens immunity, so that youngsters may develop more infections than usual; minor cuts may take longer to heal, too.
It’s best to replenish the body through the diet.
Vegetarians, however, may be particularly prone to zinc deficiency. Much of the zinc in fruits, vegetables and bread is not always fully absorbed. Lean red meat is an ideal source of zinc, as are chicken and fish. A multi-vitamin with zinc provides the daily requirements for this mineral.
Foods like eggs, butter, salmon, and herring are good sources of vitamin D. But unlike other vitamins, vitamin D is also made by your child’s own body, with a little assistance from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. When your child is exposed to sunlight, it helps his body synthesize vitamin D in the skin. And it doesn’t take much time in the sun to produce adequate amounts of vitamin D.
However, not all children and adolescents get enough sunlight, particularly during certain times of the year or in northern regions of the United States. Dense cloud covers and high levels of air pollution can reduce the ultraviolet rays reaching the skin. In addition, your teenager’s own skin characteristics can affect the vitamin D that his own body makes. In particular, the pigment in his skin is an important factor to consider; darker skinned people manufacture less vitamin D than those whose skin is lighter.
As important as sunscreen is to protect your teenager from skin cancer later in life, it can also interfere with sunlight’s positive effects. Talk to your pediatrician about finding a balance between brief periods of sun exposure and sunscreen use.
Protein is essential for growth, energy, and tissue repair. Athletic performance depends on muscle strength, and muscles are made of protein. Although athletes who are involved in strength and endurance training may need slightly more protein, it’s a mistake to think you can simply build up muscles by eating lots of protein. Exercise, not dietary protein, increases muscle mass.
The amount of protein adolescents need varies at different stages of development. As a rule, boys and girls between ages 11 and 14 need half a gram per pound of body weight daily. Thus, a young teenager weighing 110 pounds needs about 50 g of protein a day. Between ages 15 and 18, the RDA drops slightly. As with all essential nutrients, common sense is the rule—you don’t have to weigh every gram on a scale. Each gram of protein provides 4 calories—the same as carbohydrates—and protein should make up about 10% to 12% of each day’s calories. As a general rule, there are approximately 22 g of protein in 3 oz of meat, fish, or poultry. An 8-oz glass of milk contains about 8 g of protein. Therefore, an average teenager who is drinking 3 glasses of milk a day does not need enormous amounts of meat to meet his daily protein requirement.
The protein in foods of animal origin is termed complete or high-quality protein because it contains all the essential amino acids in about the proportions humans need. Vegetable proteins are called incomplete because, except for soybeans, they have low levels of one or more essential amino acids. You don’t have to eat animal products to obtain high-quality protein, however.
People on vegetarian diets take care of their protein needs by pairing plant foods that balance each other’s shortfalls. Pairing foods in this way is called protein complementation. Eating a grain and a legume does the trick; beans and tortillas, a peanut butter sandwich on wheat bread, and black-eyed peas and rice are good examples of protein complementation. You can also compensate for any lack in a plant-based food by adding a small amount of animal-derived protein, such as in pasta with cheese or cereal with milk.
Protein and Calorie Content of Foods Most Teenagers Like to Eat
Food (portion size)
Protein Content (g)
Bagel (1 medium)
Bread, whole wheat, 1 slice
Cheese, processed, American (1 oz)
Cheeseburger (4-oz meat patty)
Lean meat, fish, or poultry
Milk, reduced-fat (2%). low-fat (1%), or nonfat (skim) milk
Some adolescent girls crave sweet foods and candy a few days before each menstrual period. Such cravings are similar to craving carbohydrates when under stress or trying to quit smoking. Researchers found that women with severe premenstrual symptoms felt happier and calmer if their evening meals were high in carbohydrates and low in protein on the days preceding their periods. The women were less depressed, tense, and confused, and felt calmer and more alert than women who kept to their regular diet.
Researchers traced the explanation to serotonin, a brain chemical involved in mood and appetite. Serotonin is controlled by food intake; carbohydrates boost serotonin release while protein has no effect. Nicotine, like carbohydrates, increases brain serotonin, while nicotine withdrawal has the opposite effect.
If your teenager is unusually tense or tearful around the time of her periods, she may feel better if her meals and snacks include more complex carbohydrates such as pasta and grains. She should make a corresponding cut in her intake of animal protein and avoid simple sugars such as in candy and desserts, which often include hefty amounts of fat as well. In this way, she’ll lift her mood and maintain balanced nutrition while avoiding extra, empty calories. Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) can be reduced by taking 400 mg of calcium 3 times daily every day. Some data also suggest that magnesium (250 mg 1–2 times per day) may decrease PMS.
When 16-year-old Julie leaves home on a date, her mom and dad are less anxious than they used to be. Like other teens with food allergies, Julie could be at risk for a fatal, food-triggered allergic reaction (anaphylaxis). She is allergic to cow’s milk. But, Julie, with her parents’ guidance, has begun to take charge of her health. She is more informed and careful: “Even very small traces, in food, that you’re allergic to, like cow’s milk for me, can cause a serious reaction.”
As teens grow toward adulthood, they also must grow more responsible for their health. Parents are partners in this growth. They help their teens manage their food allergies and help teens take charge. Recent studies show that over 50 percent of the deaths from severe allergic reactions to foods occur in teens.
These teens have a “known food allergy… and did not receive prompt treatment with epinephrine,” the injected medication that is the first-line response to anaphylaxis, says Scott Sicherer, M.D., FAAP, associate professor of pediatric allergy and immunology at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York and a member of the executive committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Section on Allergy and Immunology.
Although most parents expect teenagers to take risks, the poor choices food-allergic teens make are especially dangerous because they could lead to death. These risks occur because teens may be more likely to eat unsafe foods, deny reaction symptoms, and delay treatment. They also neglect to carry their life-saving rescue medication, epinephrine, says Dr. Sicherer, who is co-author of The Complete Peanut Allergy Handbook. Why do they do it? Surveys of food-allergic teens reveal that many take risks because they feel that the food allergy socially isolates them. In fact, 94 percent of surveyed teens said that social isolation was the worst part of having a food allergy.
Help Your Teens Take Charge
Parents raise their children to become responsible adults in other areas of their lives. They also need to help them shape safe adult behaviors for living with their food allergies. There are several strategies you can use to shape these behaviors in your teens. Help teens learn to talk about their food allergies.
In a restaurant, at a picnic, at an amusement park, or at other social events, have your teen ask the right questions to those preparing and serving foods. You’ve asked these questions many times; now your teenager needs a chance to perfect this skill. The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) works to build public awareness of food allergy through education, advocacy, and research efforts. The FAAN’s Web site offers teens a strategy to make their food allergies known — a template for a chef’s card that teens can download. Teens note their food allergies on the card and carry it with them to give to a chef, cafeteria staff member, server, or restaurant manager to make sure food will be safe.
Friends and dates are important to teens. So close friends need to become allies in managing their food allergies. Help teens learn to discuss their allergies with those who care about them. These people will want to keep them safe. Some teens who have spoken with their friends found they got the support they needed. One 17- year-old added in an online discussion forum that some of her close friends “have become as cautious as I am… I feel honored that they care enough about me to join my world of reading, checking, and rechecking.”
Especially important is talking with dates about food allergies. Although having a food allergy doesn’t mean that teens can’t date, it does mean that they have to be extra careful. One Web site, Food Allergies in the Real World, was created for young adults who are taking a more active role in managing their food allergies. The site gives teens advice on how to approach dates and conduct Food Allergy 101 in an online “Dating game”.
Strategies include making a list of the details about the food allergy to tell a date. The list will make sure that teens don’t omit important information when talking about their food allergy with dates. Although dates don’t need a complete medical history, they should know that a severe reaction could warrant a trip to the emergency room.
The site also advises them to practice what they will say so it comes across as casual, but serious. Encourage your teen to practice these conversations with you. Help your teen practice such simple statements as “I can’t eat in a seafood restaurant,” or “I’m allergic to peanuts. Please don’t eat peanuts before our date. If you do eat peanuts, please brush your teeth and wash your hands before you pick me up so that I won’t have a reaction.” Dating is about teens’ rehearsing for more adult relationships and finding out whom they are comfortable with. Dates who pressure teens into taking harmful chances won’t measure up. On the other hand, dates that make an effort to learn about these food allergies show they are worth the relationship. They deserve to be told how much their efforts mean, so help your teen learn to express appreciation to them. Help teens become advocates.
Although you will continue to work with doctors, teachers, and school officials, it will be important for teens to begin these relationships themselves. Encourage your teenager to ask your pediatrician any questions. Teens with allergies can also work with school administrators, nurses, and meal planners to suggest that more safe food items be added to school menus. You can even help your teen plan an event at school with teachers and nurses to raise awareness about food allergies.
There are many risks during the teen years, but you will be able to decrease one of them by helping your teen learn to manage a food allergy. The consequences of a severe untreated allergy can be fatal so make sure your teen is educated and prepared.
Your anxious, wakeful teenager may not be aware of how much caffeine she’s consuming in the course of a day. Obvious sources include colas, coffee, tea, and energy drinks, but there are hidden ones, such as over-the-counter headache remedies and other kinds of soda. The following chart includes common caffeinated products and the amounts of caffeine they contain:
Contents of a Sampling of Energy Drinks,* Per Serving (240 mL [8 oz])
More than 80% of teenagers have acne, so if your youngster manages to get through adolescence with no more than a couple of skin blemishes, she’s one of the lucky few. Contrary to what most people believe, acne is not caused by chocolate, fried foods, candies, or anything else in a teenager’s usual diet. It’s not the result of constipation, nor is it a sign of sexual activity or the lack of it. Instead, it’s caused by increased levels of certain hormones that stimulate the fat glands in skin to step up production of sebum, an oily secretion that lubricates and protects the skin. Sebum, together with cast-off skin cells and other debris, blocks skin follicles, which can become infected or inflamed. The increase in sebum production may occur as early as 2 years before any other signs of puberty, and boys and girls as young as age 9 may have skin bumps and coarsened pores, especially in areas where sebaceous glands are numerous, such as around the nose and the middle of the face.
Acne often runs in families. Most cases are mild, and pimples and zits don’t usually leave permanent scars if the lesions are left alone. Over-the-counter lotions containing benzoyl peroxide can be helpful to prevent minor blemishes and mild to moderate acne. Your pediatrician or dermatologist can prescribe treatment for more severe or persistent acne. Occasionally some girls with severe or persistent acne have an underlying hormone imbalance with excess male hormones.
Oily creams and lotions can block skin follicles and promote sebum buildup. Teenagers should avoid oil-based skin and hair cosmetics and use non-perfumed, water-based products.
Vitamin Pills and Acne
For a teenager being treated for acne, vitamin supplements could be not only unnecessary but dangerous as well. Certain acne treatments available by prescription are derived from vitamin A. This fat-soluble vitamin is stored in the body and can build up to toxic levels if too much is consumed.
When a teenager is taking a vitamin A supplement at the same time as an oral acne treatment, you should talk to his pediatrician and make sure he’s not consuming toxic amounts of vitamin A, which could cause headaches, further skin and hair problems, and—in severe cases—liver and nerve damage.
That’s Not Chocolate, That’s Stress!
Although there’s no proven link between diet and acne, it won’t hurt to avoid chocolate and sugary or fatty foods if your teenager believes they trigger blemishes. Indeed, it may be better for her health. Adolescence is an inherently stressful time, and if stress triggers your child’s acne, measures to help her control stress may also help cut down on acne outbreaks. Some girls get more pimples before and during their periods. This is caused by changes in hormone levels.
There is little scientific support for food effects on acne, including chocolate. However, some diet changes may be associated with the premenstrual phase in young women or other stressors, which may provoke more pimples. Some people develop acne after consuming foods with high iodine content. The amount of iodine that will trigger acne is many times the normal dietary level. There isn’t enough iodine in seafood and iodized salt to cause skin problems, but acne has been linked to the high iodine levels in kelp, a seaweed extract sometimes included in sports drinks. A few medications can cause acne. Adolescents under treatment with certain steroids, antiepilepsy medications, or lithium should talk to their pediatricians about the effects of such medications on the skin.
Food Faux Pas Number One: Skipping Meals, Beginning with Breakfast
In a Gallup poll of more than four hundred boys and girls aged nine to fifteen, fully half claimed to skip breakfast on school mornings. Many youngsters just aren’t hungry at that hour, but the major obstacle to a sound morning meal seems to be a lack of time. By the time they finally sit down to lunch in the school cafeteria, they may have gone twelve, fourteen hours or more without eating.
In doing so, they’re depriving their brains of essential nutrients needed for concentration, short-term memory, problem solving and processing information. Missing any of the three traditional square meals also reduces by one third their chance of meeting the daily required intake (DRI) for calcium.
What You Can Do
Fix breakfast the night before. In the time it takes to pour the orange juice, you can be warming up the plastic-wrapped plate of precooked eggs and lean bacon, or whatever appeals to your teen’s taste buds. A nutritious breakfast should provide a minimum of three hundred calories.
If time is tight, fresh fruit and low-fat or no-fat yogurt make for a perfectly healthy breakfast. Or drop some fruit in the blender, add skim milk and mix up a filling morning shake. This, too, can be prepared the day before and kept chilled in the refrigerator.
Whole-grain english muffins, toaster pastries, breakfast bars and bagels are easily munched on while getting ready for school. For spreads, consider peanut butter instead of cream cheese. While equal in calories, peanut butter contains more nutrients but with four times less saturated fat and twentyseven times less sodium than cream cheese.
Think beyond traditional breakfast fare. “Leftover pizza or chicken are perfectly acceptable for kids to eat in the morning,” says Mary Story. Other possibilities: fresh fruit with cheese, cottage cheese or yogurt.
When a sit-down breakfast is out of the question, pack a breakfast-to-go. Taste may be less of a priority here than portability; if a food can fit in a jacket pocket or a backpack without creating a mess, you’re in business. Here are several examples: bananas, apples, tangerines and other portable fruits; hardboiled eggs; sandwiches; resealable plastic bags filled with nuts and raisins; and breakfast bars.
Food Faux Pas Number Two: Eating on the Run
Much of the food teenagers eat comes served on trays. Two in three of them purchase lunch at school, where they’re at least assured a nutritionally balanced, if not always appetizing, meal. They also spend a lot of time crammed together in booths at fast-food restaurants. The popularity of these establishments has less to do with the quality of cuisine than the fact that they provide an informal and inexpensive venue for socializing.
In response to Americans’ growing interest in healthy eating, the fast-food industry has expanded its menus to include less fattening options like salads, low-calorie dressing and grilled-chicken sandwiches. Some chains now cook their french fries in vegetable oil instead of animal fat and offer meatless soybased veggie burgers. Despite these commendable innovations, the fact remains that 40 to 50 percent of the calories in the average fast-food meal comes from fat.
What You Can Do
Share with your teenager the following tips, which will allow her to minimize the fat and salt she consumes when joining her friends at the local burger mecca or sub shop. In the end, though, parents have to accept that they have no control over what their children eat when they’re out and about—all the more reason for seeing to it that they eat sensibly at home!
Un-supersize it. Teenagers don’t have to give up the fast foods they’ve always enjoyed, but it’s wise to scale down the portion size. For example, don’t order the giant triple-decker deluxe cheeseburger; pick a regular hamburger instead.
Would you care for something else with that?
Yes: a small order of fries and a small juice or milk.
If a portion is too big, don’t feel obligated to eat it all in one sitting; take it home in a doggie bag.
Have it your way—with as few fattening condiments as possible.
Order burgers minus cheese, ketchup, mayonnaise and the ever-mysterious “secret sauce.”
Instead of ordering the burger, try the grilled chicken sandwich with no mayo.
Top pizza with vegetables instead of sausage, pepperoni and other fatty meats.
Ask for salad dressings to be served on the side, so that you can determine how much to put on.
Coolly resist the subtle pressure from the counterperson to dress up your simple baked potato in layers of sour cream, melted cheese, chives and bacon.
Hungry for a sub? Choose lean deli meats such as turkey instead of fat-heavy cold cuts.
Don’t slather bread, rolls and biscuits in butter. Use only a little or eat them plain.
Food Faux Pas Number Three: Snacking, Snacking, Snacking
Teenagers derive nearly a quarter of their daily calories from snack foods. This is an area of diet that parents can control, by not bringing salty, fattening chips, nuts and so forth home from the grocery store.
What You Can Do
Have healthy snacks on hand. Much of the time, kids snack out of habit, not because they’re genuinely hungry. When a youngster comes sliding into the kitchen during the commercial break and has two minutes and twenty seconds to decide upon a snack and hustle back to the TV, convenience is as important as taste.
If the pantry is stocked with plenty of low-fat, low-sugar, low-salt snacks, that’s what he’ll grab. These days the good-for-you convenience foods don’t taste all that different from the unhealthy ones. So do away with the non-nutritious products, such as candy, cake, and soft drinks. You might have to put up with a day or two of protest— “Hey, what happened to the glazed donuts?! Where’d all the cookies go?!”—but once it’s understood that from now on those items will be occasional treats (and once his sugar withdrawal subsides), peace will return to the household.
Now, are you ready to get really radical? Keep cleaned and ready-to-eat celery stalks, carrot sticks, fresh strawberries, melon wedges and other favorite fruits and veggies in your refrigerator, and see what happens.
“I know with my own kids that they would never dream of taking the time to peel an orange or cut up a cantaloupe, which they love,” says Mary Story. “But if I set down a platter of cut-up fruit or vegetables, it’s devoured in no time at all.”
Healthy Convenience Foods
Baked potato chips
Low-salt or no-salt pretzels
Popcorn (without butter)
Dried raisins, prunes, apricots
Food Faux Pas Number Four: The Freshman Fifteen
The “freshman fifteen” refers to the fifteen pounds that neophyte college students have been known to put on their first year away from home. It’s not surprising, given the academic pressure and the stress of a new environment— perhaps about of homesickness—coupled with unlimited access to food. There’s the cafeteria and several other eateries on campus, as well as nearby pizzerias willing to deliver at all hours. Another reason freshmen can fall into poor eating habits: Mom and Dad aren’t around to nag them.
What You Can Do
Not much, aside from offering encouragement to eat right and exercise faithfully. For teens who need motivation to improve their diets, consider sending “care packages” of healthy snack foods and other items.
Fiber, while not an essential nutrient, performs several vital functions. A natural laxative, it keeps traffic moving through the intestinal tract and may also lower the concentration of cholesterol in the blood. Yet parents are often reluctant to implement a low-fat, high-fiber diet, out of concern that their teenagers won’t get enough calories and nutrients to satisfy the demands of their growing bodies.
According to a study from the department of food and nutrition at North Dakota State University in Fargo, consuming more than twenty grams of fiber a day appears to exert the opposite effect. For the study, 319 fifteen-year-olds were divided into four groups, based on their eating habits: low-fat, low-fiber; high-fat, high-fiber; low-fat, high-fiber; and high fat, low-fiber. The students who ate plenty of fiber-rich foods obtained just as many calories as the students in the low-fiber groups. (“Low fiber” is defined as less than fifteen grams of fiber a day.) A high-fiber intake also supplied greater amounts of vitamins A, B6, B12, C, niacin, thiamin, riboflavin and folate, as well as the minerals magnesium, iron, zinc, calcium and phosphorus.
Foods Rich in Fiber
Grains: wheat germ, wheat bran, whole-wheat bread and bread products, oat bran, rice bran, brown rice, barley.
Legumes: kidney beans, navy beans, pinto beans, black beans, lima beans, lentils, chickpeas.
Serve uncooked vegetables as snacks and toss them into salads. Raw carrots, broccoli and other vegetables contain more fiber than cooked vegetables.
Substitute whole-grain bread for white bread.
Don’t overcook vegetables. Vegetables should be served while still crisp. Steaming them until they’re mushy destroys much of their fiber.
Garnish salads with seeds (poppy, pumpkin, sunflower, sesame) and sprouts. Bean sprouts and alfalfa sprouts lend a unique flavor to sandwiches, too.
Add dates and raisins to snacks and cereals.
Don’t peel apples, cucumbers, potatoes and other fruits and vegetables with edible skins. They’re excellent sources of fiber.
Popcorn is the perfect snack for anyone looking to bone up on fiber. But use only a small amount of butter and salt.
Eat dried beans, peas and legumes, such as lentils, kidney beans, black beans, white beans, chickpeas, split peas and the like. They are brimming with fiber as well as vitamins, minerals and both complex carbohydrates and proteins, yet low in fat.