A Teenager’s Nutritional Needs

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Have you heard of the saying, “You are what you eat”? The body is in a rapid growth stage from puberty through early adulthood. As you age, you make more choices that affect your body and health. To support proper growth and development, teens need a nutritionally balanced diet, physical activity, and adequate sleep. A diet high in nutritious foods can benefit a teen’s overall health as well as:

  • Provide more energy.
  • Build strong bones and muscles.
  • Reach and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Lower your risk of health issues and chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, etc.
  • Help cognitive performance in school.

Energy is used to help you grow. The calories consumed from foods and drinks measure the energy your body uses to function daily. Due to growth spurts, the body demands more calories during early adolescence than at any other time of life. How many calories you need each day depends on many factors, such as:

  • Age, sex, height, and weight.
  • How much you are still growing.
  • How physically active you are.

What Sources of Nutrients Should Teens Choose?

Each teen’s daily eating routine, or diet, should include various foods and drinks high in nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, fiber, lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats. Teens should try to limit the amount of saturated fats, added sugars, and sodium they consume daily. Listed below is advice for teens from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, regarding making more nutritious choices.


Vegetables contribute many valuable nutrients like fiber, potassium, and vitamins, which can help you have a healthy heart, kidney, and eyes and may protect you from infections. It is important to vary the types of vegetables that you eat as each vegetable has different nutrients that can assist you in various ways. Teens ages 14 to 18 should try to consume about 2.5 to 4 cups of vegetables each day.

Some vegetable choices are:

  • Dark green vegetables, including broccoli, spinach, kale, and collard greens.
  • Red and orange vegetables, such as carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes.
  • Beans such as garbanzo, red, black, or pinto, as well as peas and lentils.
  • Other vegetables include cauliflower, onions, green beans, zucchini, potatoes, corn, and plantains.


Fruits, like vegetables, are filled with vitamins, minerals, water, and fiber. These nutrients help with brain function. For example, oranges and grapefruits are good sources of vitamin C. This essential vitamin helps you grow and repair your body, heal cuts, and protect you from diseases.

Teens ages 14-18 should try to consume about 1.5 to 2.5 cups of fruit per day. Like vegetables, it is crucial to have a variety of fruits. When consuming 100% fruit juice with no added sugar, drink no more than 1 cup daily. At least half of your fruit should come from whole fruit rather than juice. This can include fresh fruit and canned, frozen, or dried fruits, like raisins, dried apricots, and prunes, with no added sugars.


Grains are a great source of fiber, several B vitamins, and minerals like calcium, potassium, and magnesium. These vitamins and minerals help your body build strong bones and muscles and can be found in oats, barley, farro, and brown rice.

Making half or more of the grains you eat daily whole grains rather than refined or processed grains will increase your nutrient intake levels. Eating whole grains high in fiber may make you feel full sooner during meals or snacks. Refined grains have less fiber and nutrients and often add sugar or salt. Teens ages 14-18 should try to consume about 6 ounces of grains per day.

  • Whole grains: oatmeal, brown rice, wild rice, whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat pasta
  • Refined grains: sweetened cereals, instant grits, white rice, white bread, pasta, white bread, ramen noodles


Protein is essential for building strong bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, blood, and hormones. Many protein-rich foods also provide iron, zinc, and other vital nutrients. The two primary sources of protein are animal and plant.

  • Animal source of protein: lean beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, seafood, milk, cheese, or eggs
  • Plant-based sources of protein: beans, peas, lentils, soy products (like tofu), nuts and seeds.

Teens ages 14-18 should try to consume about 5.5 ounces of protein per day.


Consuming dairy products can help you build strong bones and teeth, especially during adolescence. Dairy products provide many nutrients, including calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, vitamin A, B12, and Vitamin D, which are essential for building bones and a robust immune system.

Teens ages 14 to 18 should try to consume about 3 cups per day of dairy products, such as fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese. Other options include:

  • Lactose-free milk is for those with lactose intolerance and cannot digest lactose.
  • Plant-based beverages or yogurt products are made from soy with added nutrients such as calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D. These can be made from rice, almonds, oats, or coconuts.

Following the advice given by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans can help create a balanced diet for teens. The U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) created MyPlate, a visual representation of these recommendations as a practical guide for creating balanced meals that support overall well-being. Following the given recommendations and trying to include at least three or more of the five discussed food groups in each meal or snack will help teens meet daily nutrient needs. More information on MyPlate can be accessed by visiting MyPlate.gov.


  1. HealthyChildren.org. “A Teenager’s Nutritional Needs”, 2016. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/teen/nutrition/Pages/A-Teenagers-Nutrtional-Needs.aspx.
  2. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Take Charge of Your Health: A Guide for Teenagers.”, 2023. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/weight-management/take-charge-healthy-guide-teenagers.
  3. US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines of Americans, 2020-2025. 9th ed. December 2020. www.dietaryguidelines.gov
  4. U.S Department of Agriculture. Learn How to Eat Healthy with MyPlate. https://www.myplate.gov/eat-healthy/what-is-myplate

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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