Nutrition for teens

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Friday, 28 November 2008.

Nutrition for teens

A nutritious balanced diet and healthy eating habits are critical in childhood and adolescence in order to support growth and development and to avoid the development of diet-related disease later in life.

The following 12 guidelines from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) outline the major characteristics of a healthy diet for adolescents. These form the official dietary guidelines for this age group.

Dietary guidelines for adolescents - the 12 guidelines


1. Start by encouraging & supporting breastfeeding

Breast milk is the best source of nutrition for infants. It is a complete food that provides all of a baby's requirements to the age of 6 months, at which stage some solid foods are usually introduced. Breast feeding also plays an important role in protecting the infant against infection and disease.

2. Children and adolescents need sufficient nutritious food to grow and develop normally

  • Growth should be checked regularly in young children
  • Physical activity is important for all children and adolescents

Childhood and adolescence are times when the body undergoes rapid growth. To provide the energy and building blocks for growth, good nutrition is essential. Too much or too little food,  or an excess or lack of nutrients, results in abnormal growth.

Physical activity plays an important role in growth and development, strengthening the body and preventing overweight. Physical fitness can protect against a number of diseases,  a benefit which carries on into later life.

3. Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods

Eat foods from each of the major food groups - see below. And vary the foods eaten from within each group. So for fruit, don't stick to apples each day. Choose pears, rockmelon, grapes or bananas for variety. This helps to establish healthy eating habits, and minimises the chance that either too little or too much of any o ne nutrient will be consumed.

Children and adolescents should be encouraged to:

4. Eat plenty of vegetables, legumes and fruit

Fruit and vegetables are full of vitamins and are protective against a range of diseases such as heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. Want some easy ideas for getting more vegetables into your diet? Click here for our article.

5. Eat plenty of cereals (including breads, rice, pasta and noodles) , preferably wholegrain

Breads and cereal grains are mostly low fat and are excellent sources of carbohydrate and dietary fibre, especially wholegrain varieties.

6. Include lean meat, fish, poultry and/or alternatives

Red meat is the best source of iron, although chicken and fish also supply some. Iron is a nutrient that helps to transport oxygen around the body. Poor iron intake can result in feeling of tired and fatigued, and can lead to a condition called anaemia.

7. Include milks, yoghurts, cheese and/or alternatives

Reduced-fat milks are not suitable for young children under 2 years, because of their high energy needs, but reduced-fat varieties should be encouraged for older children and adolescents.

Dairy foods are the best sources of calcium. Childhood and especially adolescence are important times for calcium absorption. This is because calcium helps to build bone density and strength. Bone density becomes critical in later life, to prevent problems such as osteoporosis and bone fractures. Discover why yoghurt is one of my top 20 super foods for health and energy.

8. Choose water as a drink

Alcohol is not recommended for children. Water is essential for everyday life. More than half of the body is made up of water, and water is lost everyday in sweat, urine and from the skin and breath. Water is obtained from foods, especially fruit and vegetables. However, it is usually also required as a beverage to meet the body's requirements. Water is a better choice than cordial, soft drinks or juice, which contain high amounts of sugar.

And care should be taken to:

9. Limit saturated fat and moderate total fat intake

Low-fat diets are not suitable for infants. Fat is very high in kilojoules and contributes about one third of the total kilojoules intake of young children. Fat has several functions in the body, including maintenance of healthy cells and transport of vitamins. However, excessive fat intake, especially saturated fat, can lead to health problems such as diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and cause overweight and obesity. For this reason, it is recommended that older children and adolescents chose foods low in fat, such as low fat milk, yoghurt and cheese.

10. Choose foods low in salt

High levels of salt consumption are linked to high blood pressure and heart disease. Most of the salt we eat is in processed foods, such as butter, margarine, cheese, bread and snack foods. A food is considered to be a ‘low salt' food if it contains less than 120mg of sodium per 100g. Consuming low salt foods is important for children and adolescents to prevent high blood pressure in later life.

11. Eat only moderate amounts of sugars and foods containing added sugars

Sugars may be found naturally in foods or be added during processing. Foods that contain large amounts of sugar often contain only small amounts of other nutrients. Sugars are a source of kilojoules that are easily absorbed by the body. Eating too much sugar can also lead to overweight, and is linked to tooth decay.

12. Care for your food: prepare and store it safely

Even healthy food can make you unwell if it is not stored or prepared properly. Make sure cold foods are stored in the refrigerator and hot foods are thoroughly reheated before eating. Always wash your hands before handling food, and use different cooking utensils to prepare raw and cooked foods.

Adobe PDF icon 100x100Download our handy one-page list of these guidelines here: pdf Guidelines for Children & Adolescents

For the full papers, go to the NH&MRC website and scroll through their list of publications. You'll find both a pdf and a Word doc. The links sometimes change so the Home page is www.nh&

Compiled by Katrina Baker, Masters of Nutrition & Dietetics student (USyd) and Catherine Saxelby.  © Foodwatch Pty Ltd

Healthy diet for a teen

Wondering how to include all these guidelines in your day to day eating? Here is an example of a simple menu plan for a day that meets all the Dietary Guidelines for adolescents.


Cereal with milk
Wholegrain toast with butter or margarine, honey, topped with sliced banana

Morning Tea

Tub of Apricot yoghurt
Muesli bar


Tuna or chicken and salad sandwich on wholemeal bread
Orange or mandarin or other fresh fruit

Afternoon Tea

Cheddar cheese with crackers


Lamb or beef strips and vegetable stir-fry with noodles or rice or quinoa
Fresh peach or canned peaches with ice cream


Hot milk with honey or malted milk powder 
Fresh strawberry smoothie


Nutritional issues affecting teens

1. Unhealthy snacks and confectionery

Many of the snacks commonly eaten by children and adolescents, such as chips and lollies, are high in kilojoules but provide very few useful nutrients. They may also be high in salt or fat. Better choices for snacks include low fat dairy and fruit.

2. Too much takeaway food

This includes pre-prepared meals and fast foods. These foods are often high in fat and/or sugar. These foods are often sold in overly-large serving sizes, resulting in excess kilojoule intake. Download our free handout on the best and worst fast food choices.

3. Skipping meals

Many teens tend to skip meals, particularly breakfast. This results in poor concentration and fatigue during the morning, as well as hunger which results in poor food choice/unhealthy snacking later on.

4. Consumption of sugary drinks

This includes soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks and cordial, which are high in sugar and low in nutritional value. These often replace healthy beverages such as water and milk. Check out how much sugar you're consuming in soft drink, juices, sports drinks and flavoured milks in our free download.

5. Too-early consumption of alcohol

Teens are susceptible to marketing of alcohol and peer pressure to drink. Many binge-drink on weekends which can lead to liver damage and un-protected sex. Alcohol also adds unwanted kilojoules and is the cause of much of the obesity problem in Australia. If you don't believe this, read our article on the pros and cons of alcohol and discover how many kilojoules/calories in your fav drinks.

6. Dieting

Concerns about body image and thinness mean overzealous dieting by many girls and low levels of intakes of certain nutrients (iron, calcium and to a lesser extent vitamins A and C and zinc). It also sets the scene for the diet-binge cycle which can become an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Read up on healthy weight loss in our selection of easy-to-read articles. There's also my Reviews post 10 things I learned from the Biggest Loser.