How Do I Know if My Teenager is Eating Enough?

Adequate intake significantly impacts a teenager’s growth and development. Those in a parental role will discover that as babies grow into teenagers, the amount of control  a child has over food will increase. Assuming more of the responsibility in feeding themselves does not always mean teens make the best dietary decisions. As teens spend more time away from home or eat in different ways, a parent may find themselves asking, how do I know if my teenager is eating enough?

A teenager eating enough food will usually consume 3 meals with 1-3 snacks. Teens will also continue to grow and develop, and unless under the direction of a healthcare professional, should not lose weight. Adequately fed teenagers will interact with friends and family, show interest in hobbies and other activities, recover from injuries and illnesses, and be able to focus on topics other than food.

Parents want the best for their teens. Therefore, questions about the eating habits of adolescents are normal. The following article will answer some of those questions and provide guidance for healthy eating as a teen. Serious health concerns should be brought up to an appropriate healthcare professional.

Read on for learning more about if your teenager is eating enough.

How Much Should a Teenager be Eating?

Calorie needs vary widely among teenagers. Their needs differ according to factors such as sex, weight, height, body composition, physical activity, genetics and more. In fact, what a teenager needs to eat will change day to day as well. Rather than focusing on a set number of calories, teens should eat to where they feel satisfied and energized between eating occasions. 

In general, a teenager should eat a balanced diet full of variety and without restriction. Teens should aim to make half the plate fruit and vegetables at mealtimes. Including at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily will help teens stay healthy and active now and into their later years.

Combining protein foods with each meal and snack will give teenagers the building blocks necessary for full growth and development. Protein will also keep teens feeling satisfied between eating occasions and help prevent energy crashes. Protein foods should make up about a quarter of the meal plate.

Adolescents use a lot of energy and the best source of energy comes from carbohydrates. Filling a quarter of the meal plate with complex carbohydrates such as whole grains and starchy vegetables will fuel a teenager’s daily activities.

Nutrition experts recommend three servings of dairy to protect bone health in teens. However, these bone strengthening nutrients can be found in fortified drinks, almonds, beans, broccoli, tofu and other foods. These foods are great options for teens who must avoid dairy due to dietary preferences, intolerances or allergies. 

Teens should also include healthy fats with meals. The unsaturated fats found in plant oils, avocados, fatty fish, olives, seeds and nuts increase nutrient absorption, help build healthy body tissue and organs, and provide an important source of energy. 

Finally, do not forget the importance of adequate fluid intake. Dehydration can significantly decrease mental and physical health. Like calories, fluid requirements vary widely. Adolescents will want to drink fluids throughout the day, not just when thirsty. Teens should drink enough to where urine is a light yellow.

The choose my plate website offers calorie calculators and other resources to personalize nutrition needs. These tools provide a basic guideline, but should still be tailored to meet a teens specific needs and preferences.

What Happens if a Teenager Does Not Eat Enough?

Significant growth and development occur during the teenage years, and these changes require energy and nutrients.  Inadequate energy intake will disrupt these important changes. The body focuses resources on basic survival needs, not growth, when nutrients and calories are in short supply.

A teenager with chronic, poor nutrition will experience both short and long term negative health consequences. Among many, the following signs and symptoms may appear when a teenager does not eat enough.

  • Hyper focus on food
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in other activities
  • Fatigue
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
  • Poor immune system
  • Decreased ability to recover from injury
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Dry skin
  • Intolerance to cold
  • Weight loss
  • Stunted growth
  • Delayed puberty
  • Low bone mineral density
  • Decreased heart health
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety 
  • Depression
  • Impaired cognition

Reach out to a doctor or registered dietitian if concerned about a teenager’s eating habits and health. Addressing poor intake early can prevent some of the more serious and long lasting consequences.

Does My Teen Have an Eating Disorder?

The risk of an eating disorder increases during teenage years among both girls and boys. If an eating disorder is suspected, reach out to a healthcare professional. The National Eating Disorder Association also provides resources such as a screening tool, descriptions and  a helpline at . 

Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by inadequate intake relative to needs. Individuals also demonstrate a dissatisfaction with body and an intense fear of gaining weight.

Bulimia Nervosa is characterized by binge eating episodes. These episodes are then followed with a period of purging through vomiting, exercise, restriction or laxative use. Also, weight significantly impacts self evaluation.

Binge Eating Disorder is characterized by reoccurring binge episodes without subsequent purging. Individuals will also express distress regarding their binging behaviors.

Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder is characterized by an eating disturbance that results in not meeting nutrient or calorie needs, and results in significant weight loss, nutrient deficiencies or a need for nutrition support. The individual does not restrict due to weight concerns or medical conditions.

Some common signs of an eating disorder include weight fluctuations up or down, preoccupation with food, excessive exercise, avoiding company while eating and following rigid food rules or routines.

Eating disorders lead to serious health consequences, including death. As a mental disorder, simply telling teens how to eat will not solve the problem. Seek professional help as early as possible. Recovery is possible for all who suffer from eating disorders.

Ways to Easily Increase Calories if a Teenager Struggles to Eat Enough Food

If a teenager struggles to eat enough calories throughout the day, sit down with them and discuss the need to meet energy output with energy demands. Do not sneak extra calories into a teen’s diet. Try to work with them to increase their food intake.

Power packing refers to adding nutrition and calories to meals without adding a lot of bulk. For example, cooking foods in heart healthy oils, such as olive oil. Adding sauces, dressings, nut butters and cheese to meals can help increase calories as well. Another option is replacing water with milk in recipes like oatmeal and soups. Additionally, use add-ons like dried fruit, nuts, seeds, avocado, etc. to salads, soups and sandwiches. Nutrient full beverages like milk, juice and smoothies make fast and easy additions to a diet as well.

When all else fails, nutrition support through oral supplements (Ensure, Pediasure) can increase calories along side a diet full of nutrient dense foods. 

When looking to increase overall food intake in a teenager, try not to just add in high saturated fat or high sugar foods. Eating a meal pattern full of nutrient dense foods remains important, even for those who need to eat more. 

What if a Teenager Seems to be Eating Too Much?

Sometimes a teenager’s eating habits may change, including eating more than usual. Changing dietary patterns is normal and can be a sign of a healthy relationship with food as a teen responds to the body’s unique energy needs day to day.

A teen may eat more with a growth spurt, an increase in exercise, or eating poorly earlier in the day or week.

Try not to place restrictions or shame on a teenager due to concerns about their eating choices.  These measures increase the likelihood of a teenager developing disordered eating. Instead, focus on providing an example of healthy eating, increase access to nutrient dense meals and snacks, and talk to the teen about what may be contributing to the increased consumption of food. 

Teenagers should not pursue weight loss unless directed by a healthcare professional.

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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