What is the Best Diet Plan for a 16 Year-Old? From a Dietitian


16 year-olds are learning to be more independent, making their own food choices, and even buying some of their own foods. They are also at a period of crucial growth and development and need to pay attention to their eating habits and weight trends for overall health. A diet of fast food and packaged snacks won’t do much good, especially if getting to a healthy weight is the goal.

The best diet habits for a 16 year-old are to never skip meals, drink plenty of water, limit soda and processed foods, and eat a variety of foods from all food groups in appropriate serving sizes. Healthy habits are critical; if you establish a healthy relationship with food at this age you’ll never have to diet the rest of your life.

Teenagers only learn a small amount of nutrition information and tips from school, it’s up to parents, coaches, mentors, family members, etc. to model appropriate eating behavior and teach teenagers habits that will benefit them for life and help them create healthy eating habits.

Read on for some of the best tips from a nutrition expert to help a 16 year-old get to a healthy weight.

How Many Calories Should a 16-Year-Old Eat to Lose Weight?

A moderately active 16 year-old boy needs about 2,800 calories per day, and a moderately active 16 year-old female needs 2,000 calories per day.

A 16 year-old should follow their calorie recommendations, as estimated by the chart below from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Teenagers are at an important time of rapid growth and development and need a lot of calories and nutrients to fuel their changing bodies. Calorie recommendations are based on many factors including age, gender, body size, activity level, etc.

A 16 year-old trying to lose weight should follow the calorie recommendations below and discuss their goals with a doctor and dietitian to see if less calories are recommended. Eating smarter, not necessarily less, is the goal to get teenagers to a healthy weight.

Recommended Calorie Intakes for Teenagers:

Female Calorie Recommendations:

AgeNot ActiveModerately ActiveActive
131,6002,0002,200
14-18
1,800
2,000
2,400
192,0002,2002,400

Male Calorie Recommendations:

AgeNot ActiveModerately ActiveActive
132,0002,2002,600
14
2,000
2,400
2,800
152,2002,6003,000
16-182,4002,8003,200
192,6002,8003,000

Activity Levels:

  • Not Active = Minimum activity, just daily movements (walking, stairs, chores, etc.).
  • Moderately Active = Standard daily activities plus 30-40 minutes of physical activity.
  • Active = Standard daily activities plus 40+ minutes of physical activity.

Should a 16 Year-Old Lose Weight?

A 16 year-old shouldn’t try to lose weight unless they are encouraged to do so and are closely monitored by a physician and/or registered dietitian nutritionist.

A teenager’s weight is only concerning if their weight on a growth chart has been increasing over time in the overweight or obese categories. A teenager’s weight classification may change many times based on growth spurts, the overall trend is what is most important when considering weight goals.

The typical goal for overweight teenagers is not necessarily to lose weight, but to “grow into their weight” as they hit their growth spurts. It’s common for teenagers to gain weight before they grow taller and slim out. The best thing a teenager can do now is to develop healthy diet habits.

See also: What Causes Weight Gain in Teenage Girls?

What is a Healthy Weight for a 16 Year-Old?

The Center for Disease Control has a good Child and Teen BMI Percentile Calculator online here. It’s a fairly good estimate of your child’s BMI percentile and weight classification. The categories are:

  • underweight at less than the 5th percentile
  • healthy weight at 5th to 85th percentile
  • overweight at 85th to <95th percentile, and
  • obese as greater than the 95th percentile.

Again, this online calculator is just an estimate and not meant to be a diagnosis. Talk to your medical professional if you are concerned about your child’s category. Weight trends over time are more important than a single classification since teen’s weight and height change rapidly.

See also: How Can I Tell if my Teen is Overweight?

Should I Tell My Teen They Need to Lose Weight? Tips from a Dietitian

Is it Healthy for a 16 Year-Old to Diet?

It isn’t a good idea for a 16 year-old to diet during the crucial teenage years of growth spurts and development. Restricting calories or important nutrients may be harmful in the long run.

There are some situations where weight loss is appropriate for a teenager, but it needs to be monitored by a healthcare professional. Your teen’s doctor or dietitian (or both!) can help make an appropriate plan for your teenager to focus on weight loss (if appropriate), choose correct foods, add more physical activity, and learn to eat an appropriate amount.

The goal for overweight teenagers is to eat smarter, not necessarily eat less. An appropriate eating plan with a dietitian’s help will benefit your teenager more than a restrictive diet to lose weight and get to a healthy weight.

Certain medical conditions may make it harder for a teenager to lose weight (including depression or anxiety, polycystic ovarian syndrome, or hypothyroidism). Your doctor will offer recommendations and treatment options.

How Can I Diet at 16?

If you are 16 and want to go on a diet, the worst thing you can do is to look up unhealthy food tips and trends on the internet and start following a restrictive diet. The best thing to do is to learn about mindful eating and supplying your body with the correct amount of healthy nutrients.

The internet is full of unhealthy fad diets and everyone claims to be a nutrition expert. I’m a registered dietitian nutritionist (we’re the real nutrition experts) and I’ve seen the effects of all types of diets. If you follow a fad, restrictive diet, you will probably lose weight, and then you’ll gain it back plus more. It’s not a good idea to follow a fad diet or restrictive diet because it’s never going to help you in the long run! You need healthy habits that stick for long-term health and weight management.

Restricting food isn’t the goal for a teenager trying to get to a healthier weight. The best thing a 16 year-old can do to get to a healthy weight is to create a balanced eating plan focused on nutritious, energizing foods that will keep you full throughout the day.

Don’t believe all the fad diets and health claims you read on the internet (you can believe this one- it’s written by a dietitian, a real nutrition expert), restrictive diets will be more harmful than helpful in the long run.

Best Diet Tips a 16 Year-Old Can Do for a Healthy Weight:

As a registered dietitian nutritionist, here’s what I recommend for 16 year-olds, and any teenagers, who are considering dieting to lose weight.

Honor Your Hunger/Fullness Cues

Practice paying attention to your hunger and fullness cues and eat when you need it. It takes practice! Think about it before, during, and after eating. Learn to stop eating when you are comfortably full, don’t just try to finish your plate. Try not to eat when you are bored or emotional, listen to your true hunger. And always eat when you’re hungry.

Focus on Your Food

Slow down when you are eating to enjoy your food.

Limit screen time, especially during meals and snacks. Don’t eat in front of a screen, eat with family and friends.

Increase Nutritious Foods

Always eat fruits and vegetables with meals. Half of your plate should be fruits and vegetables. Parents should stock the fridge and pantry with favorite fruits/veggies and keep them easily accessible and ready to grab-and-go for healthy snacking.

All Foods Fit in Moderation

Limit highly-processed and sugary foods. These foods still have a place in your diet, but in moderation.

Eat a variety of foods. Don’t restrict any food from your diet. All foods fit in moderation and balance.

Learn Cooking Skills

Start to help in any way you can with meal planning, grocery shopping, and/or food preparation and cooking at home for your family. These are great skills to develop at this age that will benefit you long term as you learn to choose and prepare good foods that you like. Try new things too!

Other Healthful Habits

Be active. Find ways to add physical activity that you enjoy into your day.

Get enough sleep. Teenagers typically need about 8-10 hours of sleep per night. Develop a good bedtime routine and turn off your phone!

Drink plenty of water. Ditch the sugary beverages and even the diet soda. See also: Are Artificial Sweeteners a Good Idea For Teens? Why Sugar-Free Isn’t Always Best

Control stress. Find ways to relieve stress and emotions besides turning to food, such as talking to a friend, going for a walk, journaling, praying, drawing, reading, listening to music, going outside, napping, etc.

Learn to love yourself. Everyone is different and there isn’t one perfect size, height, hair color, eye color, skin tone, shoe size, etc. Different is good and it’s what makes our world beautiful. Everyone is perfect in their own way and you can learn to be happy with who you are. Smile and make yourself believe it! Create a motivational mantra if you need it when you feel down. Choose something like “There is just one me, I am enough.” or “I love myself, I am beautiful”.

Things a 16 Year-Old Should Not Do to Lose Weight:

As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I’ve seen some pretty crazy things clients have done to try to lose weight. If you want the weight loss to last, don’t do these things as a teenager:

Don’t Compare Yourself

Don’t compare yourself to others, especially to posts on social media. Don’t compare your worst to their best. Everyone’s body is unique and everyone loses weight at different rates. Losing weight should be about feeling better, happier, healthier, and more confident, not about looking like someone else.

Don’t Skip Meals

Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast. Eat every 4-5 hours. Eat 3 meals and about 1-3 snacks per day.

Don’t Follow a Restrictive Diet

Don’t restrict food. Carbs are okay, dairy is okay, fat is okay, sugar is okay. Even french fries are okay sometimes! It’s all about developing a healthy relationship with food. Having a healthy relationship with food means you can eat whatever you want- but you have learned to want foods that make you feel good.

Don’t Follow a Fad Diet

Don’t go on a fad diet that you see on the news or on the internet or from your favorite celebrity. All diets work at first and you’ll lose some weight, then you’ll gain back the weight later when you go back to eating normally. Those diets aren’t sustainable long-term. Plus fad diets can be really harmful for growing teenagers.

Don’t try a “detox” or “cleanse” diet. You might feel better after trying these for a few days because you’ll be eliminating other highly processed and unhealthy foods, but you’ll also be restricting important nutrients and energy your body needs. Plus you’ll gain the weight back quickly because it was mostly water weight. Your body is already very good at detoxifying itself, you don’t need to drink celery juice all day to remove toxins.

Wanting to lose weight can be worrisome and unhealthy. If you or someone you know is developing an unhealthy obsession with food or weight, it may be the signs of an eating disorder. Contact the confidential National Eating Disorders Helpline for support, resources, and treatment options.

How Can a 16 Year-Old Lose Weight Fast?

The best way for an overweight or obese 16 year-old to lose weight is to work with a dietitian to develop healthy habits. An RD or RDN (Registered Dietitian Nutritionist), will talk through a teenager’s typical eating habits to assess needs.

Dietitians identify areas for improvement and work with the whole family to build specific goals and changes for better eating habits. If weight loss is appropriate for a teenager, it’s helpful to know that fast weight loss is not likely sustainable.

The goal for successful weight loss is losing 0.5 to 2 pounds per week, that’s only 2-8 pounds per month. That may not seem like fast weight loss, but it’s more likely to last.

Teenagers can lose weight by working with a dietitian on eating habits that include a meal schedule of 3 meals and 1-3 snacks per day, adding more fruits and vegetables and whole grains, filling up on lean proteins, limiting fast foods and desserts (and soda!), staying hydrated, and never skipping meals.

Identify habits that you need to change. Start small – it can be overwhelming to change everything at once. Pick 1-2 reasonable goals to work on at a time.

The Best Diet Plan for a 16 Year-Old Teenager

If you are looking for more tips to implement a healthy diet, whether or not your teen is overweight, check out these tips for some ideas.

A Healthy, Balanced Diet for A 16 Year-Old Teenager Includes:

  • Fruit and Vegetables: Choose 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day. A serving size is about the size of your fist or 1 cup. Choose a variety of colors, types, and textures.
  • Protein foods: Choose 4-7 servings per day. A serving is equal to 1 ounce of cooked meat, 1 egg, 1/4 cup cooked beans, 1 Tablespoon of peanut butter, or 1/2 ounce nuts or seeds.
  • Whole Grains and Starchy Foods: Choose 6-8 servings per day. A serving is equal to 1 slice of bread, 1/2 cup of cooked grains, etc. Choose whole wheat breads/pasta/crackers, sweet potatoes, oats, brown rice, quinoa etc.
  • Dairy Products: Choose 2-3 servings per day. A serving size is about 1 cup of dairy or 1 ounce of cheese. Choose low-fat dairy products (skim or 1% fat) of milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, etc. Fortified dairy alternatives are also appropriate.
  • Limit sugar, sodium, and saturated fat: Teens should limit highly processed foods and foods with too much sugar, salt, and fat, such as dessert, treats, snacks, candy, cakes, and sugary drinks. These foods are high in calories and low in nutrients. They should be the “sometimes foods” in a teenager’s diet, consumed in moderation, not consumed regularly.

It can be difficult to get teenagers to eat healthier foods, especially with their busy grab-and-go schedule. You can’t change everything at once and expect the habits to stick. It takes practice and time to change up your schedule and routine, but bit by bit you’ll get there.

Pick one simple habit to work on this week and just strive to be a little bit better this week than you were last week. That could mean packing lunches 1-2 more days this week, making sure your teen eats breakfast every day, helping your teen get to bed on time, planning a family hike, or serving a vegetable with the dinner meal.

Everything helps! Build it into a habit and then move on to something else that you can realistically accomplish.

What Should a 16 Year-Old Eat in a Day?

The best diet for a 16-year old teenager includes a balance of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy or dairy alternatives, protein foods, and healthy fats. It’s important for growing teenagers to choose foods high in nutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber) and low in added sugars, salt/sodium, and unhealthy fats.

Here’s sample menu plans of a balanced diet for a 16 year-old based on the calorie recommendations for moderately active teens. For males that’s 2,800 calories per day and for females that’s about 2,000 calories per day. More or less calories may be needed based on individual differences.

16 year-olds should divide their calorie recommendations between about 3 meals and 1-3 snacks to keep up with their calorie and nutrient needs during the day. Meals should be about 500-700 calories each and snacks should be about 100-300 calories.

I made one-day sample menu plan ideas so you can get an idea of what that amount of calories looks like in a day from a balance of healthy and favorite foods. These sample menu plans are an example of fairly balanced food choices for a teenager. They can work for teenagers who are overweight or normal weight.

Sample Meal Plan For a 16 Year-Old Girl at 2,000 Calories:

Breakfast: 2 scrambled eggs with cheese, 1 slice avocado toast, 1 banana, 1 cup of 1% milk. 585 calories

Lunch: Pita wrap with chicken, hummus, spinach, feta cheese, and tomatoes. 1/4 cup pretzels and 1 small cookie. 488 calories

Snack: 1 cup celery sticks and 5 whole-wheat crackers with 1 Tablespoon peanut butter. 190 calories

Dinner: Shrimp rice bowl with 4 oz shrimp, 1 cup brown rice, 1/2 cup roasted sweet potatoes, 1 cup leafy greens, 1/4 cup tomatoes, 1/4 cup black beans, 1/3 avocado. 511 calories

Snack: 8 oz lowfat Greek yogurt with 1/4 cup mixed berries and 2 tablespoons granola. 223 calories (or move this snack after breakfast)

Total: 1,997 calories, with 112 grams protein, 232 grams carbs, and 69 grams fat.

Sample Menu Plan For a 16 Year-Old Boy at 2,800 Calories:

Breakfast: 2 slices buttered toast and oatmeal (made with 1/2 cup oats, 1 Tablespoon flax seeds, 2/3 cup lowfat milk, 2 Tablespoons nut butter, and 1/2 cup berries) 655 calories

Snack: 1 small handful trail mix with nuts and dried fruit (about 1/2 cup). 320 calories.

Lunch: chicken salad sandwich on whole wheat bun, 1/2 cup sugar snap peas, 1/2 cup carrots, 2 Tablespoons of ranch, and 1/2 cup grapes. 643 calories.

Snack: PB&J sandwich. 350 calories.

Dinner: 4 oz grilled salmon, medium baked sweet potato with honey butter, 2 cups green salad and 3 Tablespoons lowfat dressing. 632 calories.

Snack: 2 cups fruit and veggie protein smoothie. 202 calories

Total: 2,802 calories with 119 grams protein, 334 grams carbohydrates, and 110 grams fat.

I hope you find some of my suggestions helpful. With a little planning ahead, these meals can be easily prepared for packaged lunches and snacks at school. Do your best, and if school lunch is the best option, that’s okay too. Look ahead at the menu and talk to your teen about choosing the non-fried foods and always picking fruits and vegetables.

Here are some additional meal plans I’ve created for teen athletes that you might find helpful:

How Can a 16 Year-Old Gain Weight?

An underweight teenager (check this online calculator and check with a doctor for classifying size) should consider meeting with a dietitian to plan healthy meal habits. Typically to gain weight, a teenager will be encouraged to add some high-calorie foods into their diet, but not just fatty foods like pizza and ice cream.

Helpful Tips For a 16 Year-Old to Gain Weight:

  • Boost Calories- Add healthier high-calorie foods like whole-fat milk products (Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese, and milk), nuts, seeds, avocados, nut butters, dried fruits, etc.
  • Schedule Meals- Plan to eat 3 meals per day and 1-3 snacks. Do not skip meals.
  • 5-a-day– Eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
  • Protein– Include high-quality protein at each meal such as lean meat, fish, eggs, as well as plant-based proteins such as beans, lentils, nuts, etc. Protein powders aren’t necessary, but may occasionally be convenient. See also: Is Whey Protein Safe for Teenage Athletes? Here’s What Dietitians Recommend
  • Healthy Carbohydrates– Plan meals around starchy carbohydrates such as grains, potatoes, rice, oats, etc.
  • Honor Your Hunger– Practice listening to hunger cues, notice when you are hungry and don’t ignore the feeling to eat. Bring healthy snacks with you during the day when you need it. Ask your parents to keep the fridge and pantry stocked with healthy snacks.
  • Follow Your Doctor’s Recommendations– If there are underlying medical, emotional, or mental problems, check in with a professional.

How Much Body Fat Should a 16 Year-Old Have?

Body fat levels change often throughout life, especially with puberty as a teenager’s body goes through growth and developmental changes. It’s normal and expected to gain or lose some fat during the teenage years. If you continue healthy habits, you’ll likely be at a healthy rate of body fat even if you look different than when you were at age 12.

A healthy rate of body fat for a 16 year-old teenage girl is typically between 21-23 percent. A healthy rate of body fat for a 16 year-old teenage boy is typically between 10-12 percent.

Don’t stress if your number is a little higher or lower, boys typically lose fat during the teenage years and girls typically gain some. This is just an estimate, many teenagers tend to gain weight and then go through a growth spurt and slim out. It’s totally normal to keep changing as you grow.

Each of us have different genes which affects our metabolisms. We all store extra energy as fat in our bodies differently, there is no perfect body fat percentage.

It can be tricky to measure body fat percentage because a lot of the gym scales aren’t very accurate. Your doctor probably doesn’t normally measure body fat, but tracks your growth through BMI, height and weight.

Underwater weighing, Bod Pod (air displacement plethysmograph), and skinfold measurements are techniques used to measure body fat percentage, but are not always very common or accessible. BIA (Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis) scales or handheld devices can be fairly accurate (but also skewed based on quality and other factors). They are typically not recommended for individuals younger than 18.

Because of these factors, it may be difficult to measure exact body fat percentages in teenagers.

Remember- your body needs fat, it helps keep you warm, protects your organs, helps with absorption, and many more important functions. You put your bones and muscles at risk if you don’t have enough fat, but having too much extra fat could increase risks of health problems and pain.

The Bottom Line

Eating enough nutritious foods, avoiding highly-processed foods and sugary beverages, getting enough exercise, and controlling sleep and stress are the best ways for a 16 year-old to lose weight.

It’s common for many normal, healthy weight teenagers to feel the need to be thinner and want to lose some extra pounds. This isn’t recommended and could be harmful long term.

ONLY teenagers that are recommended by their doctor should work on losing weight, most overweight teenagers should focus on developing healthier habits with food instead.

Parents who notice signs of a possible eating disorder should discuss treatment options with their teen’s doctor or contact the national helpline. Signs include: obsession with food choices, constant dieting, avoiding social situations with food, obsession with body size, evidence of vomiting or using laxatives, excessive exercise, isolation, frequent avoidance of eating, drastic weight change, etc.

Related Questions:

How Should a Teenager Lose Weight? The best way for a teenager to lose weight is to develop a healthy eating plan, and not focusing on dieting and restricting food. Start some healthy habits by eating an appropriate amount of food, don’t skip meals, drink lots of water, and choose a balance of nutritious foods.

How Many Carbs Should a 16 Year-Old Eat? Typically carbohydrate recommendations for 16 year-olds are 45-65% of total calories. For a 2,000 calorie diet that would be about 225-325 grams of carbohydrates per day, and for a 2,800 calorie diet that would be about 315-455 grams of carbohydrates per day. This is especially important for growing, active teenagers.

Teenagers usually should not be on a low-carb diet during these important years of growth. Carbs come from grain products, fruit, dairy products, starchy vegetables, beans, and sugary foods.

How Much Sugar Should A Teenager Eat? The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugars per day for kids and teenagers, or 25 grams of sugar. Added sugar can hide in many foods such as sauces, dips, breads, yogurt, cereals, etc. It can be tricky to stay within the guidelines.

Check out my post for more specific sugar recommendations for teenagers and examples of 6 teaspoons of sugar. See also: Are Artificial Sweeteners a Good Idea For Kids? Why Sugar-Free Isn’t Always Best

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References

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. How Many Calories Does My Teen Need? Written By Esther Ellis, MS, RDN, LDN. Published October 4, 2019. https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/dietary-guidelines-and-myplate/how-many-calories-does-my-teen-need

Written by Katherine Harmer, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

Katherine Harmer, RDN

I'm a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a love for coaching others to success in their health goals, especially teenage athletes. Tennis was my sport of choice in high school. Now I'm a little bit older, a little bit smarter, and a little bit worse at tennis.

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