With all of the nutrition tips out there, you might feel confused about what you should actually be eating for your age and lifestyle for top health. It seems like everyone has an opinion about what foods you should and shouldn’t eat- but some of them have no nutrition training, no credentials, and have no idea what they are talking about. The truth is, eating isn’t all that complicated and should not feel stressful. Eating should be nourishing to your body but also enjoyable!
You should be eating a variety of foods from carbohydrates, protein, and fats at almost all meals and snacks. Eat foods from all food groups: fruits, vegatables, grains, protein foods, and dairy. Eating all foods in balance and moderation will help you have a healthy diet.
To know what you should be eating, it helps to have a basic understanding of nutrition and how different foods help your body. However, you also have to understand your body and be in tune with the cues it is giving you. Your body is extremely smart and once you start listening to it and understanding what it needs, you will be able to nourish your body and enjoy what you are eating!
Read on for more information about what healthy eating looks like for a teenger, the basic nutrition principles that teenagers should understand, information on how much teens should be eating, and the types of foods teens should be including in their diet!
What Does Healthy Eating Look Like for a Teenager?
The truth is, eating healthy looks different for everyone. Calorie, carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamin, mineral, and fluid needs will be different depending on your body composition, physical activity level, height, and more!
Although your needs might be different from someone else, there are still some questions you can ask yourself to evaluate your eating habits:
- Do I honor my hunger and fullness cues? Do I eat when I am hungry and stop when I feel satisfied?
- Am I including at least 5 fruits and vegetables each day?
- Do I eat regularly throughout the day and avoid going long periods of time without food?
- Do I eat foods from each food group? (Grains, fruits, vegetables, fats/oils, dairy, and protein)
- Do I eat a variety of different foods from each food group?
- Do I feel energized during the day?
- Do I enjoy the foods that I choose to eat?
- Do the foods I choose to eat feel good in my body and give me the nourishment I need?
- Do I eat balanced meals and snacks and include carbohydrates, protein, and fat?
- Do I drink water throughout the day to stay hydrated?
If you can answer “yes” to most of these questions, you are probably doing a good job with healthy eating. If you answered “no” to some areas, it might be helpful to dig a little deeper and find out what is holding you back!
Keep in mind that there is no such thing as “perfect eating.” Also remember that food has no moral value, meaning you are not “good” or “bad” for the foods you choose to eat or not eat. Eating is a necessity of life and you shouldn’t feel guilty for what you eat.
If you struggle in any of these areas, it is helpful to talk to a dietitian! A registered dietitian can help give you meal and snack ideas, help you overcome any food fears you might have, help you fuel properly for the exercise you are doing, teach you meal planning and cooking skills, and more!
Are you active? Look into my meal plans if you want more help knowing what to eat:
- Nutrition Meal Plan for Football Players
- Nutrition Meal Plan for Teen Athletes
- Nutrition Meal Plan for Basketball Players
Basic Nutrition Principles that Teens Should Understand
I remind people all the time to listen to their body, but if you don’t speak the language of your body- it is really hard to know what it needs! This is where nutrition education comes in. Once you have a better understanding of what your body needs, it will be so much easier to listen to your body, eat healthy, and feel good!
Understanding these basic nutrition principles is a great place to start:
- Carbohydrates are your body’s main energy source. They break down into sugars and travel through your bloodstream to bring energy to the rest of the body.
- Protein is important for muscle maintenance and growth.
- Healthy fats that are high in unsaturated fats and low in saturated fats can help decrease inflammation and are important for nutrient absorption and heart health.
- Protein, fat, and fiber slow down the digestion of your food and help to stabilize your blood sugar and energy levels.
- Combining carbohydrates, protein, and fat is the best way to structure meals and snacks! Most foods are not balanced on their own, so you will likely need to pair foods together.
- Vitamins and minerals are involved in almost anything you can think of going on in your body, from strengthening bones, to powering muscle contractions, to strengthening your hair and nails, and so much more! There is no magic food that has all the vitamins and minerals you need, but if you eat a variety of foods from each of the food groups, you will get all the nutrients you need!
- Right before and during a workout you will want to stick to mostly carbohydrates because you want that energy to digest quickly and be available right away!
- All foods can be a part of a healthy diet. Cutting out certain foods might lead to nutrient deficiencies and obsessive thoughts about food.
- Eating mindfully, listening to hunger and fullness cues, paying attention to your five senses while you eat, and putting away distractions at meal times are great ways to improve your relationship with food and your body.
What Types of Foods Should I Be Eating?
The good news is… you can eat the foods that you enjoy and still be healthy! When teens are trying to eat better and be healthier overall, many make the mistake of cutting out foods that they have heard are “bad.” But the truth is, no food is really “bad” – I encourage teenagers to prioritize nutrient-dense foods, but still leave room for sweets and treats that they love!
To understand the types of nutrient-dense foods that will be beneficial to the body, let’s go through each of the food groups that teens should include in their diet. You can check out Myplate.gov for more examples of foods that fit into each food group!
Grains and starches likely make up a lot of your carbohydrate intake during the day. This includes foods like bread, rice, pasta, crackers, pretzels, quinoa, tortillas, tortilla chips, etc. Aim to make half of your grains whole grains, which are higher in fiber and nutrients like B Vitamins, iron, magnesium, and selenium.
Fruits (fresh, dried, freeze-dried, frozen, canned, and juiced) are also good sources of carbohydrates and fiber. Different fruits contain different vitamins and minerals, which is why it is best to get lots of variety!
There are two classifications of vegetables, non-starchy vegetables (like cauliflower, asparagus, green beans, peppers, and onion) and starchy vegetables (including potatoes, corn, and peas). Starchy vegetables have a lot higher carbohydrate content and I think about them like they are part of the grain group. Just like fruits, different vegetables have different nutrients and getting a variety is best!
Protein foods often overlap with foods in the dairy and fats groups and include foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, greek yogurt, cheese, nuts, and soy products. It is best to get a mix of both plant and animal sources of protein and choose lean animal proteins that are lower in saturated fat!
Dairy foods like milk, yogurt, and cheese usually provide good amounts of protein, but other important nutrients like calcium which is essential for bone development and bone strength.
Fatty foods high in unsaturated fats include fish, olive oil, nuts, nut butters, seeds, and avocados.
How Much Should I Be Eating?
Myplate.gov does a great job of giving recommendations about how much of each food group you should be eating during the day based on your age and gender. This doesn’t take into account individual needs, but it can be a good place to start!
Once you are eating a good balance of nutrient-dense foods, the best way to know what amount of food is right for your body is to apply mindful eating techniques. If you have trouble recognizing your body’s cues, read through some of these tips!
- Find the point where you feel satisfied while eating. This happens before you start getting super full but so many people miss it!
- Slow down and take breaks while you eat to evaluate how hungry you are and how close you are getting to your satisfied point.
- Make your eating environment peaceful and enjoyable where you can relax and take in the meal.
- Pay attention to your senses as you eat. What is the texture of the food on your tongue? What does the food smell like? Do you hear any sizzle or other sounds?
Can I Eat Treats and Desserts and Still Be Healthy?
Absolutely, 100% yes! In fact, it is healthier to eat these foods in moderation than to cut them out altogether. Your brain does not like to be told it can’t have something, so during restriction, you will often start craving that food even more than normal! This usually results in overeating later on.
Mindful eating principles should be applied when eating these foods as well. You might even find that once you allow yourself to eat treats, you free up your brain to stop wanting them so much!
Eating treats like candy, cookies, ice cream, brownies, or anything else you like is part of a happy, healthy life! Some of the best memories you make might be over a bowl of ice cream with friends. There is plenty of room for nutritious and delicious foods in your diet.
- What is a Normal Weight for a 14-year old?
- What Should a 14-Year Old Eat in a Day?
- Should I Tell My Teen They Need to Lose Weight? Tips from a Dietitian
- What’s the Best Thing to Eat on an Empty Stomach?
- How Can Eating Unhealthy Be Bad for Teenagers?
- What Are Healthy Snacks For Teenagers?
It is awesome that teenagers want to eat healthy and develop good eating habits! But it can be confusing to really know what to eat to meet your goals. The internet can be a confusing place with lots of conflicting advice. Make sure you stick to nutrition advice from registered dietitians who have intensive training in nutrition and know what they are doing!
I encourage teens to focus more on what they can add to their diet rather than what they need to remove. Go through each of the food groups and maybe choose one to focus on first! Health doesn’t mean cutting out all of the foods that you love. In fact, health is really just about nourishing your body, mind, and soul.
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