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Chapter 14. Lifespan Nutrition During Childhood and Adolescence

Late Adolescence

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After puberty, the rate of physical growth slows down. Girls stop growing taller around age sixteen, while boys continue to grow taller until ages eighteen to twenty. One of the psychological and emotional changes that takes place during this life stage includes the desire for independence as adolescents develop individual identities apart from their families.[1] As teenagers make more and more of their dietary decisions, parents or other caregivers and authority figures should guide them toward appropriate, nutritious choices. One way that teenagers assert their independence is by choosing what to eat. They have their own money to purchase food and tend to eat more meals away from home. Older adolescents also can be curious and open to new ideas, which includes trying new kinds of food and experimenting with their diet. For example, teens will sometimes skip a main meal and snack instead. That is not necessarily problematic. Their choice of food is more important than the time or place.

However, too many poor choices can make young people nutritionally vulnerable. Teens should be discouraged from eating fast food, which has a high fat and sugar content, or frequenting convenience stores and using vending machines, which typically offer poor nutritional selections. Other challenges that teens may face include obesity and eating disorders. At this life stage, young people still need guidance from parents and other caregivers about nutrition-related matters. It can be helpful to explain to young people how healthy eating habits can support activities they enjoy, such as skateboarding or dancing, or connect to their desires or interests, such as a lean figure, athletic performance, or improved cognition.

As during puberty, growth and development during adolescence differs in males than in females. In teenage girls, fat assumes a larger percentage of body weight, while teenage boys experience greater muscle and bone increases. For both, primary and secondary sex characteristics have fully developed and the rate of growth slows with the end of puberty. Also, the motor functions of an older adolescent are comparable to those of an adult.[2] Again, adequate nutrition and healthy choices support this stage of growth and development.

Energy and Macronutrients

Adolescents have increased appetites due to increased nutritional requirements. Nutrient needs are greater in adolescence than at any other time in the life cycle, except during pregnancy. The energy requirements for ages fourteen to eighteen are 1,800 to 2,400 calories for girls and 2,000 to 3,200 calories for boys, depending on activity level. The extra energy required for physical development during the teenaged years should be obtained from foods that provide nutrients instead of “empty calories.” Also, teens who participate in sports must make sure to meet their increased energy needs.

Older adolescents are more responsible for their dietary choices than younger children, but parents and caregivers must make sure that teens continue to meet their nutrient needs. For carbohydrates, the AMDR is 45 to 65 percent of daily calories (203–293 grams for 1,800 daily calories). Adolescents require more servings of grain than younger children, and should eat whole grains, such as wheat, oats, barley, and brown rice. The Institute of Medicine recommends higher intakes of protein for growth in the adolescent population. The AMDR for protein is 10 to 30 percent of daily calories (45–135 grams for 1,800 daily calories), and lean proteins, such as meat, poultry, fish, beans, nuts, and seeds are excellent ways to meet those nutritional needs.

The AMDR for fat is 25 to 35 percent of daily calories (50–70 grams for 1,800 daily calories), and the AMDR for fiber is 25–34 grams per day, depending on daily calories and activity level. It is essential for young athletes and other physically active teens to intake enough fluids, because they are at a higher risk for becoming dehydrated.


Micronutrient recommendations for adolescents are mostly the same as for adults, though children this age need more of certain minerals to promote bone growth (e.g., calcium and phosphorus, along with iron and zinc for girls). Again, vitamins and minerals should be obtained from food first, with supplementation for certain micronutrients only (such as iron).

The most important micronutrients for adolescents are calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, and iron. Adequate calcium and vitamin D are essential for building bone mass. The recommendation for calcium is 1,300 milligrams for both boys and girls. Low-fat milk and cheeses are excellent sources of calcium and help young people avoid saturated fat and cholesterol. It can also be helpful for adolescents to consume products fortified with calcium, such as breakfast cereals and orange juice. Iron supports the growth of muscle and lean body mass. Adolescent girls also need to ensure sufficient iron intake as they start to menstruate. Girls ages twelve to eighteen require 15 milligrams of iron per day. Increased amounts of vitamin C from orange juice and other sources can aid in iron absorption. Also, adequate fruit and vegetable intake allows for meeting vitamin A needs. Table 14.3 “Micronutrient Levels during Older Adolescence” shows the micronutrient recommendations for older adolescents, which differ slightly for males and females, unlike the recommendations for puberty.

Table 14.3 Micronutrient Levels during Older Adolescence

Nutrient Males, Ages 14–18 Females, Ages 14–18
Vitamin A (mcg) 900.0 700.0
Vitamin B6 (mg) 1.3 1.2
Vitamin B12 (mcg) 2.4 2.4
Vitamin C (mg) 75.0 65.0
Vitamin D (mcg) 5.0 5.0
Vitamin E (mg) 15.0 15.0
Vitamin K (mcg) 75.0 75.0
Calcium (mg) 1,300.0 1,300.0
Folate mcg) 400.0 400.0
Iron (mg) 11.0 15.0
Magnesium (mg) 410.0 360.0
Niacin (B3) (mg) 16.0 14.0
Phosphorus (mg) 1,250.0 1,250.0
Riboflavin (B2) (mg) 1.3 1.0
Selenium (mcg) 55.0 55.0
Thiamine (B1) (mg) 1.2 1.0
Zinc (mg) 11.0 9.0

Source: Institute of Medicine. 2006. Dietary Reference Intakes: The Essential Guide to Nutrient Requirements. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/11537. Accessed December 10, 2017.

Eating Disorders

Many teens struggle with an eating disorder, which can have a detrimental effect on diet and health. A study published by North Dakota State University estimates that these conditions impact twenty-four million people in the United States and seventy million worldwide.[3] These disorders are more prevalent among adolescent girls, but have been increasing among adolescent boys in recent years. Because eating disorders often lead to malnourishment, adolescents with an eating disorder are deprived of the crucial nutrients their still-growing bodies need.

Eating disorders involve extreme behavior related to food and exercise. Sometimes referred to as “starving or stuffing,” they encompass a group of conditions marked by under eating or overeating. Some of these conditions include:

  • Anorexia Nervosa. Anorexia nervosa is a potentially fatal condition characterized by under eating and excessive weight loss. People with this disorder are preoccupied with dieting, calories, and food intake to an unhealthy degree. Anorexics have a poor body image, which leads to anxiety, avoidance of food, a rigid exercise regimen, fasting, and a denial of hunger. The condition predominantly affects females. Between 0.5 and 1 percent of American women and girls suffer from this eating disorder.
  • Binge-Eating Disorder. People who suffer from binge-eating disorder experience regular episodes of eating an extremely large amount of food in a short period of time. Binge eating is a compulsive behavior, and people who suffer from it typically feel it is beyond their control. This behavior often causes feelings of shame and embarrassment, and leads to obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, Type 2 diabetes, and other health problems. Both males and females suffer from binge-eating disorder. It affects 1 to 5 percent of the population.
  • Bulimia Nervosa. Bulimia nervosa is characterized by alternating cycles of overeating and undereating. People who suffer from it partake in binge eating, followed by compensatory behavior, such as self-induced vomiting, laxative use, and compulsive exercise. As with anorexia, most people with this condition are female. Approximately 1 to 2 percent of American women and girls have this eating disorder.[4]

Eating disorders stem from stress, low self-esteem, and other psychological and emotional issues. It is important for parents to watch for signs and symptoms of these disorders, including sudden weight loss, lethargy, vomiting after meals, and the use of appetite suppressants. Eating disorders can lead to serious complications or even be fatal if left untreated. Treatment includes cognitive, behavioral, and nutritional therapy.

Childhood and Adolescent Obesity

Children need adequate caloric intake for growth, and it is important not to impose very restrictive diets. However, exceeding caloric requirements on a regular basis can lead to childhood obesity, which has become a major problem in North America. Nearly one of three US children and adolescents are overweight or obese.[5]

There are a number of reasons behind this problem, including:

  • larger portion sizes
  • limited access to nutrient-rich foods
  • increased access to fast foods and vending machines
  • lack of breastfeeding support
  • declining physical education programs in schools
  • insufficient physical activity and a sedentary lifestyle
  • media messages encouraging the consumption of unhealthy foods

Children who suffer from obesity are more likely to become overweight or obese adults. Obesity has a profound effect on self-esteem, energy, and activity level. Even more importantly, it is a major risk factor for a number of diseases later in life, including cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, hypertension, and certain cancers.[6]

A percentile for body mass index (BMI) specific to age and sex is used to determine if a child is overweight or obese. This is more appropriate than the BMI categories used for adults because the body composition of children varies as they develop, and differs between boys and girls. If a child gains weight inappropriate to growth, parents and caregivers should limit energy-dense, nutrient-poor snack foods. In addition, it is extremely beneficial to increase a child’s physical activity and limit sedentary activities, such as watching television, playing video games, or surfing the Internet.

Programs to address childhood obesity can include behavior modification, exercise counseling, psychological support or therapy, family counseling, and family meal-planning advice. For most, the goal is not weight loss, but rather allowing height to catch up with weight as the child continues to grow. Rapid weight loss is not recommended for preteens or younger children due to the risk of deficiencies and stunted growth.

Avoiding Added Sugars

One major contributing factor to childhood obesity is the consumption of added sugars. Added sugars include not only sugar added to food at the table, but also are ingredients in items such as bread, cookies, cakes, pies, jams, and soft drinks. The added sugar in store-bought items may be listed as white sugar, brown sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, anhydrous dextrose, crystal dextrose, and concentrated fruit juice. (Not included are sugars that occur naturally in foods, such as the lactose in milk or the fructose in fruits.) In addition, sugars are often “hidden” in items added to foods after they’re prepared, such as ketchup, salad dressing, and other condiments. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, young children and adolescents consume an average of 322 calories per day from added sugars, or about 16 percent of daily calories.[7]

The primary offenders are processed and packaged foods, along with soda and other beverages. These foods are not only high in sugar, they are also light in terms of nutrients and often take the place of healthier options. Intake of added sugar should be limited to 100–150 calories per day to discourage poor eating habits.

Tools for Change

The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans call for sixty minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily for preteens and teens. This includes aerobic activity, along with bone- and muscle-strengthening exercises.[8] However, many young people fall far short of this goal. Preteens must be encouraged to lead more active lifestyles to prevent or treat childhood obesity. In the United States, the Let’s Move! campaign inspires kids to start exercising. This program, launched in 2010 by First Lady Michelle Obama, works to solve the problem of rising obesity rates among children, preteens, and teens. It offers information to parents and educators, works to provide healthier food choices in schools and afterschool programs, and helps children become more active. One way the program promotes physical activity is by encouraging preteens and teens to find something they love to do. When kids find an activity they enjoy, whether riding a bike, playing football, joining a soccer team, or participating in a dance crew, they are more likely to get moving and stay healthy. You can learn more about Let’s Move! and efforts to encourage physical activity among adolescents at this website: http://www.letsmove.gov/.

  1. Polan EU, Taylor DR. Journey Across the LifeSpan: Human Development and Health Promotion. Philadelphia: F. A. Davis Company; 2003, 171–76.
  2. Polan EU, Taylor DR. Journey Across the Life Span: Human Development and Health Promotion. Philadelphia: F. A. Davis Company; 2003, 171–173.
  3. Eating Disorder Statistics. North Dakota State University. http://www.ndsu.edu/fileadmin/counseling/Eating_Disorder_Statistics.pdf. Accessed March 5, 2012.
  4. Learn By Eating Disorder. National Eating Disorders Association.https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder . Accessed December 4, 2017.
  5. Learn the Facts. Let’s Move. https://letsmove.obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/learn-facts/epidemic-childhood-obesity. Accessed December 5, 2017.
  6. Obesity and Overweight Fact Sheet. World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/. Updated October 2017. Accessed November 29, 2017.
  7. Ervin RB, Kit BK, Carroll MD. Consumption of Added Sugar among US Children and Adolescents, 2005–2008. National Center for Health Statistics. NCHS Data Brief. 2012; 87. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db87.pdf. Accessed December 5, 2017.
  8. 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. US Department of Health and Human Services. http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/pdf/paguide.pdf. Accessed March 5, 2012.