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Teen Diet & Nutrition: What to Expect

teen diet

This is the final installment in our Your Child’s Development series. We’ve covered infancy, toddlerhood and the grade-school years, and now we’re taking on teens (13 years- 19 years).

This child development series takes a look at typical development and how it may influence your child’s eating and behavior around food.

Hold onto your hats, parents, you’re in for a ride! You might be ready for the oft-cited common teen rebellions—driving too fast, staying out beyond curfew and experimenting with, well, you know, substances.

But are you ready for the other stuff? I’m talking about teen diet and nutrition…the food confusion, diets and eating decisions (good and bad)?

Let’s dig in to what you may be up against.

Erikson describes adolescence as a period of identity formation and separation from adult caretakers (independence).

What is Going on with Teens?

During adolescence, teens are thinking differently and moving toward adult thoughts and decisions. Specifically, they are:

  • Developing independent thinking, moving from black or white, concrete and rule-bound thinking to more abstract, long-term consequence-type thoughts and flexible problem-solving
  • Taking risks, with everything, including food and eating behaviors and sometimes challenging authority, pushing limits and rejecting norms and standards
  • Developing self-confidence and self-esteem, an ever-evolving but particularly sensitive and impressionable job of teenagers

The Difference Between Early and Late Adolescence

There are two sub-categories of adolescence, early and late, and the motivations incurred by development are different.

In early adolescence, young teens are less concerned with developing their own identity and more concerned with being part of a group, similar to the child’s developmental drivers. They are susceptible to peer pressure and outside influences such as media and community. This “psychology of belonging” allows young teens to identify with group norms and values.

As teens gets older, they become more self-assured and can make choices for themselves, based on their values and individuality, rather than on group norms.

A client of mine once bemoaned:

“My thirteen year-old daughter wants to buy her lunch at school every day because that’s what all her friends are doing, while her older sister wants to bring her own lunch because she thinks the cafeteria food is gross and unhealthy.”

I assured this mother that both of her girls were demonstrating what experts note as “healthy development.” The one daughter shied away from being different from her friends, wanting to adopt the group mentality. The other made her own decisions based on knowledge and values she had accumulated throughout her childhood experiences.

One thing you want to keep in mind is how development influences the teen diet–your teen’s eating choices and habits.

The Impact of Teen Diet and Eating Behaviors:


Eighty-three percent of teens consume at least one snack per day and this snack contributes 23% of the total calories (or 526 calories) eaten throughout the day, according to recent NHANES data; many of the snacks that teens choose are high in sugar and fats, or both.

Bottom line: snacks contribute ¼ of the daily foods eaten by teens, so keeping them mostly healthy can keep your teen mostly healthy.

Eating Out:

Teens eat 1/3 of their meals away from home and often in fast food establishments. Why? Cheap, tasty, social and efficient. After all, teens are busy creatures. Dining out can also mean high fat, low fiber and potentially excess calories.

Skipping meals:

A practice that often begins in adolescence and can negatively impact nutritional intake, skipping meals means deleting breakfast and lunch. This can lead to excess hunger, over-eating, poor concentration and missing out on important nutrients like calcium and iron, among others.

Family meals:

Dinner is the most common meal eaten by teens with their families. The connection between parents and teens is heightened at this time and is noted to have benefits that go beyond the food eaten.

For more on family meals and their impact on health, read this and this.

Dieting and weight control behaviors:

According to Project EAT, more than ½ of teen girls and 1/3 of teen boys engage in unhealthy weight control practices such as dieting, skipping meals or fasting. Parents can be a positive role model in their own eating behaviors and be savvy to the signs and symptoms of eating disorders.

Non-traditional eating behaviors:

The drive to be an individual can lead to experimentation with alternative eating such as veganism or increased interest in global issues around food (hunger, malnutrition). Teens need to be supported in these endeavors with accurate information and knowledge, whether these practices are a fad or a lasting practice.

Survival Tips for Parents:

  • Help your teen develop a healthy and stable self-image by showing support and acceptance.
  • Keep the lines of communication open. Communication can be a valuable insight for navigating the food attitudes, environment and behaviors of your teen.
  • Tune into the values and behaviors you are demonstrating to your teen—these are the ones that ultimately are valued by your child– and they stick.
  • Make available the foods you want your teen to eat; use the family meal table to promote healthy eating and connection.

Tell me about your experiences with the teen diet and your teen’s eating behaviors in the comments below.


Hazen E, Schlozman S and Beresin E. Adolescent Psychological Development: A Review. Pediatr. Rev. 2008: (29) 161-168.

National Eating Disorder Information Center

Story M, Stang J. Understanding Adolescent Eating Behaviors. 2005.

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