Healthy eating is important for a teen because it gives you energy all day, helps you stay focused in school, provides your body with the nutrients it needs for physical and emotional growth, helps maintain a healthy weight and helps protect you against diseases related to unhealthy eating. For a 16 year old -- and for the rest of your life -- a healthy diet means choosing to eat nutrient-dense foods over empty calorie foods.
Nutrient density, according to the National Institutes of Health, refers to how many nutrients you get from a food, given the number of calories it contains. In other words nutrient-dense foods give you the most nutrients for the lowest number of calories. Typically, nutrient-dense foods are as close to how they appear in nature as possible, with limited processing. These foods are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, lean proteins, beans and lentils and healthy fats from olive oil, avocados, nuts and fish.
Limit Nutrient-Poor Foods and Snacks
Nutrient-poor foods are also known as empty calorie foods. These foods have few nutrients compared to their calorie level. Examples of empty-calorie foods are refined foods, chips, sodas, cakes, candies, sweets, juices sweetened with added sugar and fried foods. These foods often seem tempting, but provide your body with little nutritional benefit and, over time, daily consumption of these foods puts your body at risk for certain diseases including obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Nutrient Needs for Teens
Nutrient needs vary significantly from teen to teen, depending on gender, activity level, body composition and genetics. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, most active female teens need approximately 2,400 calories per day and most active male teens need approximately 2,800 calories per day. However, counting calories is not necessary or realistic. By choosing nutrient-dense foods at meals and snacks you will be off to a good start at making sure your body is optimally nourished. Including a fruit and vegetable with each meal and snack help to ensure that you are eating adequate vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and phytochemicals. Make it a goal to eat a minimum of three servings of fruit a day and three servings of vegetables.
The Importance of Breakfast
Breakfast can help you to do better in school by increasing your attention span and memory, giving you more energy and preventing feeling of irritability and restlessness, according to the Weight Control Information Network. Give yourself enough time in the morning to eat breakfast. A smoothie made with fruit, yogurt and peanut butter is a great way to start your day. Even if you are running late, you can throw together something quickly and bring it with you. Ideas for quick breakfasts are a whole grain bagel with peanut butter, yogurt mixed with dried fruit, seeds and nuts, a peanut butter and honey sandwich, or a tortilla filled with peanut butter and jelly.
Including snacks between meals will help to keep your energy level up and help you to stay focused in school. Good snacks include a whole grain and a protein or a fruit and a protein. Examples of a whole grain and a protein are crackers and cheese, a peanut butter sandwich and pretzels with yogurt. Examples of a fruit and a protein are banana with peanut butter, dried fruit and nuts, fruit with cottage cheese or an apple with string cheese.
Sample Healthy Eating Plan
For breakfast choose two servings of fruit, one serving of protein, and three servings of whole grains. For example, a small apple, 6 ounces of orange juice, a whole grain bagel, and 2 tablespoons peanut butter. For the mid-morning snack choose a dairy or dairy substitute serving, two whole grains and a piece of fruit. One string cheese, eight whole grain crackers and a banana would make a good snack.
For lunch choose two servings of vegetables, three whole grains, three servings of protein, and two servings of dairy or dairy substitute. For example, a turkey sandwich with two slices of whole grain bread, 3 ounces of turkey, a slice of cheese, 10 whole grain pretzel sticks, ½ cup of baby carrots and 8 ounces of milk. Bring a separate bag of tomatoes and lettuce to add to the sandwich. For the mid-afternoon snack choose one whole grain, one protein and one fruit. An example snack is to make your own trail mix with ½ cup whole grain cereal and 1/4 cup nuts and dried fruit.
For dinner choose three servings of vegetables, four whole grains, three servings of protein, and one serving of low-fat diary or dairy substitute. For example, a burrito made with a whole grain flour tortilla, 1 cup whole grain rice, 2 ounces of chicken breast, ¼ cup black beans, lettuce, tomatoes and olives, two avocado slices and 1 cup of milk.
Your energy needs may be lower or higher than the meal plan above. If you participate in sports and spend little time watching television, your energy needs may be higher and you might benefit by adding a snack to the meal plan after dinner. If you do not participate in sports and you spend a significant amount of time watching television or sitting at the computer your energy needs may be lower and you would need to eat less food.