In today’s world, it can be difficult for parents to know what healthy eating looks like in teenagers. On one hand, conventional wisdom says that growing teenagers will eat you out of house and home. On the other hand, the news is packed with stories about the obesity epidemic and how so many of our teens are overweight and facing life-long health problems. With conflicting messages coming from the media, many parents are looking for guidance or a frame of reference of what a healthy teenage diet looks like and when it may be time to seek the help of a professional.
As with most things, the real answer is that the amount of calories your teen needs each day really depends on your teen. Student athletes likely need more calories than their more sedentary peers. Boys generally need more than girls. Teens in the midst of a growth spurt may need more calories than those who are not. However, there are some basic guidelines that can give parents an idea of how much is too much, how much is not enough, and what really makes up a healthy balanced diet for today’s teen.
There are three factors that you need to take into account when determining how many calories your child needs each day. The first is whether or not they are male or female. The guidelines recommended by the National Institutes of Health indicate that the number of calories needed by males and females is different beginning around age 9. The second factor is age. Specific guidelines for each age range are provided below. The third factor is activity level. Of the three, this is the only factor that is subjective. The NIH guidelines use three different activity level classifications:
- Not Active – Teens who fit in this box don’t play sports and are not very active. They participate in the kind of light activity that comes from living their lives like walking to class or doing chores around the house.
- Somewhat Active – Teens who are considered somewhat active expend more energy than the first group, participating in 30-40 minutes of physical activity over the course of a day like participating in gym class or playing basketball with friends after school.
- Very Active – Teens that should be classified as very active get more than 40 minutes of physical activity each day and participate in activities like organized sports teams with daily practices and dance training.
Once you have determined your teen’s activity level, you can use the NIH’s recommended calorie range below to estimate how many calories your teenager needs to eat each day to be healthy.
- Boys age 9-13
- 1,600-2,000 calories if they are not active
- 1,800-2,200 calories if they are somewhat active
- 2,000-2,600 calories if they are very active
- Girls age 9-13
- 1,400-1,600 calories if they are not active
- 1,600-2,000 calories if they are somewhat active
- 1,800-2,200 calories if they are very active
- Boys age 14-18
- 2,000-2,400 calories if they are not active
- 2,400-2,800 calories if they are somewhat active
- 2,800-3,200 calories if they are very active
- Girls age 14-18
- 1,800 calories if they are not active
- 2,000 calories if they are somewhat active
- 2,400 calories if they are very active
Unless parents are concerned that their teen’s health is being impacted by how they are eating, it isn’t necessary or advisable for parents to track daily calorie intake or strictly monitor everything a teenager eats. Modeling healthy eating habits and providing healthy balanced meals are the best things parents can do to help teens eat healthily in general. However, if you are concerned about your child’s weight or how much/little they are eating, schedule an appointment with a medical practitioner, licensed nutritionist, or dietitian.