The human body needs up to 40 nutrients daily to function optimally and with the significant physical, social, and emotional development that teens undergo, their need for these nutrients and adequate energy to fuel this development is considerable.
It’s important to help teens adopt healthy dietary habits – including being a great role model that your kids can follow by example. The nutrition experts at Bioteen Teen Nutrition share advice on which nutrients are important and how we can practically include these in your teen’s diet.
Limit added sugars
There are two main forms of sugar that we consume: natural sugar and added sugar. Natural sugar is found naturally inside fruit (as fructose) and dairy (as lactose). These sugars, as they are eaten from whole foods, come with added health benefits as they also contain nutrients like protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and dietary fibres.
Added sugars are usually a concentrated form of sugar and include sugars like brown and white cane sugar, corn syrups, and fructose or beet sugar. These are either low in or devoid of nutrients and are used in the processing of packaged foods like syrups, sauces, breakfast cereals, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.
Excessive consumption of sugar has been linked to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular complications. Excessive sugar is also detrimental to brain function, which is particularly relevant to teens. The sugar glucose is the main source of energy for the brain and too much of it can overstimulate the brain, often causing hyperactivity and mood swings. Some studies even suggest that brain hyperactivity in adolescents is linked to cognitive deficits in adulthood.
The World Health Organisation recommends that all adults and children reduce their intake of added sugars to less than 10% of their total daily energy, but ideally to less than 5%.
Energy needs vary depending on your teen’s height and weight, sex, age and activity levels. Based on average energy intake, teenage boys should aim to reduce their added sugar intake to between 35-70g of sugar per day and teenage girls should aim for between 28-55g of sugar per day. To put this into perspective, one serving of low-fat yogurt can contain as much as 30 grams of sugar!
Ramp up iron intake (especially for girls)
As your teen matures, their iron needs naturally increase due to increased lean body mass (muscles), increased red blood cell volume and loss of blood (when girls start menstruating). Iron needs are at their highest during active growth phases – for example, during puberty and growth spurts – and directly after menstruation starts.
To give you an example of how high these requirements become, a girl before the age of 13 only needs 8mg of iron per day and once she starts her period, her needs almost double to 15mg per day.
If a teen’s iron needs outweigh their intake, they can suffer from anaemia. The effects of iron deficiency anaemia in adolescents include an impaired immune response, decreased resistance to infections, fatigue, and decreased cognitive functioning and short-term memory. All these symptoms can have serious effects on your child’s ability to learn, either because of lack of concentration or missed school days due to illness.
There are two forms of iron in the foods that we eat – haeme iron and non-haeme iron. Haeme iron is generally found in animal foods and non-haeme iron in plant foods. Haeme iron is more easily absorbed by the body, but absorption of non-haeme iron can be improved by pairing these food sources with foods containing Vitamin C. High haeme iron sources include organ meat, oysters, beef and sardines, while soybeans, white beans, lentils and spinach contain high levels of non-haeme iron.
Protein, protein, and protein
Protein has numerous functions in the body and in the case of teenagers, growth spurts and continuous development, combined with busy school and extracurricular activities; mean their bodies rely more heavily on protein for optimal growth and performance, making their daily requirements higher than an adult’s.
When the protein in our food is digested it is broken down to its simplest form – amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of all proteins, the primary functions of which are to build and repair body tissue, and to produce enzymes, antibodies and hormones. Most amino acids can be made in the body from other molecules, but there are nine essential amino acids that the body cannot make, so must come from the food we eat.
Considering how important protein is, you would think that our protein requirements are high. In fact, the amount the body requires to meet its needs is quite small. The World Health Organisation recommends that teenagers eat approximately 0.9g of protein per kilogram of body weight. So, if your teen weighs 70kg, they will need 63g of protein per day.
If the only protein source was chicken, for example, that would be 360g of chicken, because 30-40g of protein food contains roughly 7g of protein. The recommendation for girls drops to 0.8g of protein per kilogram per day between the ages of 15 and 18.
Overall, you are aiming for your teen to get between te10-30% of their daily intake from protein.
Research has shown that it is best to spread it out evenly throughout the day, splitting the protein requirement across all meals. If your teen is a fussy eater and doesn’t enjoy many protein foods, or if they are so busy they often forget to eat, you can use a protein shake to boost their energy and protein intake and ensure your teen is getting the right nutrients to function optimally.
Make smart fat swaps
The type of fat that your teen eats regularly not only affects future heart health but can also affect intelligence and mental capacity – probably because the brain is composed mainly of fat.
Diets that are high in saturated fats (found in fast foods, fatty cuts of meat, chicken skin, butter, cream and coconut oil) have been associated with cognitive deterioration, while a diet high in polyunsaturated fats (like oily fish, nuts and seeds) has been shown to have protective effects.
We recommend diets like the Mediterranean diet, which are high in polyunsaturated fats known as Omega 3’s and have been associated with better memory capacity and a lower risk of cognitive deterioration. The Mediterranean diet also encourages the consumption of plenty of unprocessed and minimally processed foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes and wholegrains combined with some oily fish and healthy fats like olive oil, avo, nuts and seeds.
Fibre and probiotic foods for a healthy gut: the foundation of good health!
Scientific research has shown that the gut is responsible for far more complex functions than just the absorption of nutrients from our food. The gut is home to around 40 trillion bacteria which are collectively known as your gut microbiome. It is vital to maintain a healthy gut microbiome as it can enhance immune function, improve symptoms of depression, improve sleep quality, help fight obesity, and provide numerous other benefits.
This can be achieved by consuming foods that contain beneficial bacteria that form part of the gut microbiome. These are known as probiotic foods and are present in fermented foods like yoghurt, kefir and sauerkraut.
It is also important to consume foods that are rich in fibre, a nutrient that stimulates the growth of gut bacteria. High fibre foods include vegetables, fruits, legumes and beans. Especially good choices are green peas, broccoli, chickpeas, beans, lentils, oranges, bananas and apples.
In addition to maintaining a healthy and diverse diet, it is important to maintain adequate sleep and reduce stress levels, both of which has been associated with a healthier gut microbiome.
It’s clear that all foods are not created equal and eating a variety of foods is the best way to ensure that all your teen’s nutrient needs are met.
Helping our teens get all the nutrients they need is easier said than done though, so Bioteen is as committed as you are to seeing teens thrive, and has developed a range of supplements that can be mixed and matched to suit your teen’s individual needs.
The entire range is formulated in the correct, effective quantities for the developing teenage body, made from the highest quality, natural food-based active ingredients and free from added preservatives, artificial colourants, artificial sweeteners or fillers.
Bioteen is available online at www.bioteennutrition.com.