What is the Best Diet for Teenagers?

We live in a culture that is obsessed with dieting and body image. Popular diets like Keto, Intermittent Fasting, Paleo and others might seem glamorous and enticing, but dieting is not a good option, especially for teenagers. Getting caught up in this “dieting culture” can be very harmful as teenagers develop a relationship with food and their body. Even if done in the name of health, dieting usually does more harm than good.

Teenagers should follow a healthy eating pattern that does not restrict when or what they eat. Meals and snacks should be nutritious, as well as satisfying to the body and mind. Dieting is inappropriate for teenagers and can actually put teens at a higher risk of malnutrition and disordered eating.

Read on to find out why some of today’s popular fad diets are not appropriate for teenagers. You will also read about what teenagers should be eating to be the healthiest version of themselves.

What’s Wrong with Diets?

Diets tend to work against the body, and the thing is, when you fight against your body, you will usually lose. Constantly feeling like you are fighting against yourself and losing is not great for your mental health either. What may feel like a lack of willpower is actually just your body trying to get your attention to tell you what it needs. 

Following extreme and restrictive diets can result in constantly thinking about food, stronger cravings for certain foods, a messed up metabolism, whacked out hunger cues, and disordered eating behaviors.  

Below are examples of how some of the popular fad diets today work against your body and why they should be avoided.

The Keto Diet 

This is a very low-carbohydrate diet. When you restrict carbohydrates, you will significantly reduce your intake of grains, dairy, fruits, and vegetables. That is a lot of food groups to be cutting out! Those food groups contain many essential nutrients for growing teenage bodies. 

Your body counts on carbohydrates for energy, so your body doesn’t like it very much when you cut out it’s main energy source! Significantly reducing carbohydrate intake also throws off the balance of protein and fat in your diet, which can really make a mess of things in your body. Do your body a favor, and consume an appropriate balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat every time you eat!

Intermittent Fasting

This diet has grown in popularity throughout the last few years. It doesn’t usually restrict what you eat, but it puts significant restrictions on when you can eat. There are different kinds of intermittent fasting, but most have a time limit on when you can eat. For example, someone might only eat from 1 PM to 5 PM every day. The rest of the day and night, no food is allowed.

Your body is constantly burning through energy to keep you alive and functioning at your best. It typically needs fuel at least every 3-5 hours. Intermittent fasting is a pattern of consistently depriving your body of energy and forcing it to figure out another way of keeping you alive. I bet your body won’t want to do that for very long- so just save it the extra work and eat regularly throughout the day instead.

See also: Is Intermittent Fasting Safe for Teenagers? A Dietitian Answers


The Paleo Diet is often referred to as the “Caveman Diet” because it encourages eating like our ancestors of old ate, through hunting and gathering. This usually eliminates grains, dairy, legumes, salt, and sugar. While it might not be a bad idea to decrease some of the sugar, salt, and processed foods that we consume so frequently, strictly cutting all of these foods out is unrealistic and unnecessary. 

Your body needs nutrients from food groups like grains, dairy and legumes. Eliminating these food groups usually means lower intake of carbohydrates than is recommended. It also usually results in lower fiber intake, and lower intake of other vitamins and minerals such as calcium.

Should Teenagers Go on a Diet?

Teenagers should avoid dieting at all costs! Do you see all the flaws with these fad diets? While not everything about these fad diets is bad, they tend to overcomplicate nutrition and fight against what the body naturally needs. While it seems like people do get results from diets, they are usually dangerous, unhealthy, and unsustainable in the long run.

Luckily, there is a much easier and better way to eat healthy and maintain an appropriate weight, while not restricting foods that you love. Learning to work with your body is the key.

Healthy Eating Principles for Teens

There is a big difference between dieting and healthy eating. Healthy eating is a flexible, sustainable pattern that you can follow throughout your entire life! Healthy eating is not “perfect” eating. Healthy eating doesn’t mean you can’t ever have candy or ice cream either! Your body can handle all foods when they are eaten mindfully.

A healthy eating pattern is one that includes foods from all of the food groups. Below are examples of foods that fall in each of the food groups:

  • Fruits (Strawberries, bananas, cherries, mangos, apples, cantaloupe, etc.)
  • Vegetables (Broccoli, green beans, asparagus, potatoes, cucumbers, etc.)
  • Protein (Eggs, fish, poultry, meat, seeds, nuts, many dairy products, etc.)
  • Grains (Bread, rice, pasta, tortillas, etc.)
  • Dairy (Milk, yogurt, cheese, etc.)
  • Oils (olive oil, nut butters, nuts, avocados, etc.)

Here are a few tips for establishing healthy eating patterns without dieting:

  1. Eat regularly throughout the day. Do not go long periods without eating something. Remember that your body needs consistent fuel to keep your energy levels up!
  1. Get a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat at meals and snacks. Most of your energy (calories) for the day should be coming from carbohydrates, so don’t let the crazy fad diets lead you astray. In fact, very active teens need even higher levels of carbohydrates since they need more energy for activity.
  1. Try including a fruit or vegetable at all meals and snacks. This doesn’t have to be something you do perfectly every day, but getting in more fruits and vegetables is a great way to get in additional nutrients.
  1. Include variety in the foods that you eat. Different foods have different nutrient profiles and therefore have something unique to offer the body! Plus, it makes eating more exciting when you are trying new foods and changing things up frequently!
  1. Be mindful about the foods you choose and how much you eat. This is not to limit you or restrict you, but rather to help you recognize what eating pattern helps you feel at your best. 
  1. Choose foods that you enjoy! If you hate broccoli, eat other vegetables that you do like! On the other hand, you don’t have to eat treats that you don’t like either. Focus on finding satisfaction in the foods you do choose to eat. 
  1. Put away distractions while you are eating. With screens and other distractions constantly pulling at your attention, it can be challenging to listen to what your body is actually telling you. 
  1. Focus on your five senses while you eat. This will help bring you into a mindful and present state where you can listen to your body and more fully enjoy your eating experience.
  1. Stay well-hydrated! Get most of your liquids from water. In fact, caffeinated beverages can actually result in more dehydration. Your body can function so much better when it is hydrated! 
  1. Don’t forget about exercise, sleep, and stress management! Although these aren’t directly related to food intake, they definitely impact our overall health and well-being. Find fun ways to move your body. Exercise can actually play a big role in decreasing stress and improving mental health. Get enough sleep so that your mind and body can rest and recover.

Should Teenagers Lose Weight?

You might still be tempted to try these fad diets if they promise quick changes to your body. However, weight loss is typically not recommended for teenagers because it can be harmful during such an important period of growth and development. 

If you have a hard time loving your body the way it is, body respect is a good place to start! Focusing on more positive thoughts about your body is doable. Some of my favorite body positive thoughts are:

  • My body is strong
  • My body keeps me alive
  • My body helps me do all of the things I love
  • My body can adapt in hard situations
  • My body is doing the best it can
  • My body takes care of me and protects me

Wanting to change your body because you don’t like it is not going to result in lasting, healthy, eating and exercise habits. Wanting to take better care of your body because you love and respect your body is a much more healthy mindset. If you love and care for your body, you will give it the things that it needs and work with your body rather than against it.

Since your body is still in a period of growth and development, it may take some time for your body to settle into a weight that is right for you. Be patient with your body in the process! 

If you are concerned with your weight or a doctor has talked about your weight with you, work with a registered dietitian that can make recommendations for you individually! A dietitian can help better determine your overall health status and help you create good habits that will improve your overall health.


Recognize the loud and often annoying messages from this dieting culture that we live in, but know that you don’t have to listen to them! You can choose to take care of your body in a loving and respectful way. 

Eat plenty of nutrient-rich foods, but do not restrict other foods that you enjoy! Instead, focus on being mindful of how foods make your body feel. Eating should be an enjoyable experience that brings happiness and satisfaction. If eating is stressful and challenging for you, reach out for some additional help from a dietitian. They can work with you to help eating become a more positive experience.

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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