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Teenager Eating Habits: Fix Unhealthy Behaviors

Learn about 5 common teenager eating habits that get in the way of health and how to fix them.

Let’s face it, if you have a teenager in your house, you’re probably starting to see some bad food habits.

From skipping breakfast to overeating at the end of the day (what I call back-loading), teens may go off the rails when they get a little freedom.

As a pediatric nutritionist who’s worked with teens over the years, and as a mom who has raised four teens myself, I’ve seen what I consider the typical teenage diet.

While you may fret and worry about bad food habits, I know that much of the time unhealthy eating habits are anchored in normal teen development.

Other unhealthy eating signs, of course, are not.

For example, if you see the signs of an eating disorder, you should never consider this typical or normal. You should seek additional help.

In this article, I will review some of the common teenager eating habits I’ve seen that are counterproductive to their health, and highlight why they happen and what you can do about them.

Teens eating hot dogs in teen eating habits gone wrong.

Puberty, Growth Spurts and Teenager’s Food 

Before I get going, though, you need to understand what’s going on during the teenage years because it has quite an influence on eating.

The teenage years are a time of heightened growth and development.

Puberty is in full swing, with both girls and boys growing at a rapid pace. The teenage growth spurt is characterized by increases in height, weight and social-emotional changes.

To say it’s a roller-coaster is an understatement!

It helps if you know the signs of the typical teenage growth spurt, so you can be ready with more food. Because anytime there’s an uptick in growth, an increased appetite follows.

When do girls stop growing?

Puberty for girls begins around age 10 years with menses starting around age 12 1/2.

Most girls finish the majority of their growth two years after they start their period, typically around age 14 or 15.

Read more about when females stop growing.

When do boys stop growing?

Boys begin puberty about two years later than girls, which is around age 12 to 13.

Boys grow for a longer period of time, and typically reach their peak height by age 18 years.

Read more details about when boys stop growing.

All this growing requires energy and nutrients. As such, nutrient needs and calorie requirements are at an all-time high, preparing the body for its last phase of growth.

It’s no wonder teenager eating habits become a central focus!

Good Eating Habits of Teenagers

Obviously, you can support your teen through all this growth with good food and healthy eating habits.

An eating schedule for meals and snacks still works well with the teen, even though your teen may be drawn to eat outside your home.

This is where you’ll have to draw the line and set rules around family meals and friend meals.

Healthy meal plans including nutritious foods such as lean protein sources, dairy (or non-dairy), fruits, vegetables and whole grains should anchor your teen’s diet.

Of course, sweets and treats will be the lure. How to balance sweets will be a challenge, but I encourage you to make your home a health haven where your teen can get the nutrition he needs to grow well.

Last, being a good role model helps a lot.

Why do Teenagers Eat So Much?

It is normal for teens to eat a lot, especially boys.

They have the highest calorie requirements for growth than any other age or stage of childhood, some needing up to 3400 calories per day!

All these calories, protein and other nutrients support the dynamic, and energy-demanding process of growth.

How Often Should a Teen Eat?

I advise teens eat three meals each day and include at least one healthy snack per day.

If your teen is an athlete, he or she may need an additional snack or a 4th meal.

Teen girl eating breakfast - bad eating habits in teens and how to fix them

5 Bad Eating Habits in Teenagers

Unhealthy eating, whether related to unhealthy food choices, overeating or erratic timing can set a teen up for excessive hunger, fatigue, a lack of focus, unhealthy weight gain, and disordered eating.

Here are 5 common signs of bad eating in the teen:

1. Skipping Breakfast

Breakfast is often cited as “the most important meal of the day,” and with several good reasons.

It gives children and teens a metabolic jump start, giving the body fuel to burn.

Breakfast also wakes up the brain for learning, and helps with appetite management throughout the day.

A high protein breakfast has been shown to help teens manage their appetite, body fat and prevent extra unhealthy weight gain. 

I interviewed the researcher who did the studies on high protein breakfasts for teens on my podcast — take a listen!

Quick Fix

Yes, even my teens were crunched for time to eat in the morning. When your teen doesn’t have the time to eat breakfast before he leaves for school there are a few things you can try: 

  1. Opt for a “grab-n-go” breakfast such as a mixture of dry cereal, raisins, and nuts, or a piece of fruit with a wedge of cheese. 
  2. Teens can drink their breakfast, with options such as fruit smoothies or milk-based breakfast drinks. Both provide vitamins and minerals in addition to calories and protein.
  3. Check out my Fast & Nutritious Breakfasts for Athletes to spur some new ideas.

2. The Lunch Quandary: Bring, Buy, or Skip? 

Lunch provides the nutrients your teen requires to continue learning at school.

Eating lunch also helps keep the appetite in check after school at the end of the day.

If your teen is an athlete, lunch is the fuel she will tap into during after-school practice.

Lunch offers up a few risks for bad food habits.

One, if your teen brings lunch, the priority will be on packing a healthy lunch that is easy and safe to store.

I’ve been challenged with my teen’s lunch in the past with finding variety day after day.

Buying lunch at school can be challenging as well.

Some teens may only pick one or two items off the lunch line, not nearly meeting their nutritional needs. This may leave the teen under-fueled and hungry after school.

Other teens may choose unhealthy lunch options…day after day.

This may lead to poor nutrition and unhealthy weight gain.

Still, other teens will skip lunch all together. This is not good, or healthy, and may fuel more bad eating habits and challenges with disordered eating. 

Quick Fix

You can teach and train your child to make healthy lunch choices.

  1. Encourage your teen to select a variety of items from at least 3 food groups when packing or buying. 
  2. Include food groups such as dairy, fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meat or protein. 
  3. Check out the lunch menu and plan ahead. This can be a useful strategy to help your teen make healthy choices and avoid the “surprise” lunch. 
  4. If packing lunch from home, veer off the sandwich path. Try microwaving a potato, sending in a chef salad, or assembling whole grain crackers with lean deli meat and cheese. 
  5. Round out any sandwich or entree with a piece of fresh fruit and a container of low-fat milk or yogurt (if not already packed). 
  6. Discourage skipping lunch at school!

Chances are, if your teen eats a good lunch at school, he won’t be starving, then overeat, and clean out your refrigerator and pantry.

3. Not Getting Enough Fluids (or the Wrong Ones)

Tiredness or fatigue is a symptom of inadequate sleep, but they can also represent dehydration.

It’s not uncommon for teens to be thirsty but misinterpret that thirst as hunger. These two feelings can be confused, especially in children.

Quick Fix

Be sure your teen is drinking at least 2 liters of fluid per day.

If he is playing a sport, he probably needs more. 

A good rule of thumb to teach your teen is: If you feel thirsty, then you’re behind on fluids. 

Help your teen recognize thirst as dehydration and look for times during the day when he can increase his fluid intake. 

Be picky with beverages. Sugar-sweetened drinks can be problematic for teens, causing unwanted weight gain if not balanced into the overall diet.

Instead, promote fluids such as water, milk, or flavored sparkling water.

Encourage your teen to lay off the caffeine, too. Is coffee bad for teens?

Not necessarily, but it can be addictive and at the least, it’s dehydrating.

4. Snacking All Night Long

Many teens love to eat after dinner, and sometimes well into the evening.

Often, the food choices are less than healthy.

Hello, chips? Ice cream?

Obviously, this can be a recipe for eating too much and extra, unwanted weight gain.

Quick Fix

  1. Make sure your teen knows the difference between true, physical hunger and head hunger. Head hunger makes you think you’re hungry when what’s driving the appetite is actually boredom, emotions or other.
  2. If your teen is truly hungry, consider some of these healthier late night snacks.

5. Skipping Out on Fiber

Fiber is found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It’s one of those “filling” nutrients, helping all kids feel full after eating a meal or snack containing it.

Yet, so many teens opt for drive-through food, or other unhealthy fare, and in doing so, they often miss out on fiber.

Quick Fix

  1. Offer fruits and vegetables with meals, and have them easily available on the counter when your teen wants to nosh.
  2. Swap refined grains found in cereal, bread, bagels, crackers and more for whole grain sources. Build up the dietary fiber and you may see less grazing and overeating!
The Eating Disorder Guide

How to Improve Diets for Teens

The best way to break poor eating habits is to return to a regular eating schedule, offer wholesome nutritious foods at mealtimes, encourage a morning breakfast and school lunch every day, and nag (just a little) about  fluid and fiber intake. 

These small steps can reinforce healthy eating habits for teenagers and can keep your teen healthy, energetic, and getting the nutrients he needs to grow into a healthy adult.

Need More Help with Teen Nutrition?

Check out our on demand library of workshops, classes and guidebooks to help parents like you raise good eaters.

Read Protein Powder for Kids: What Parents Need to Know

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