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Teenage Caloric Requirements

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

It can be extremely difficult for teens to sort through conflicting messages about food and eating, and to resist the unhealthy food temptations that bombard Americans on a daily basis. Portions served at restaurants have ballooned, as have the size, number, and quantity of pre-packaged foods. Hundreds of sugary, caffeinated, and colorful drinks make ordinary water seem bland. As well, processed, unhealthy foods with little nutritional value and dangerously high levels of sodium and unhealthy fats are much more affordable and more convenient to prepare than fresh produce, whole grains, lean meats, and other "whole" foods. Furthermore, because families' schedules are so busy and rushed, they often do not have a lot of time to cook or to prepare healthful meals and instead turn to fast food or other prepackaged heat-and-eat options. Despite these challenges it is critical that teens learn to make healthy decisions for themselves because diet and nutrition are key ingredients to life-long health. Adolescence is the last opportunity for parents to influence the development of healthy eating habits that will benefit their children for the rest of their lives.

Despite the abundant supply of food in the United States, most adolescents do not receive adequate nutrition at a time when their bodies' growth and development is accelerating. In general, adolescent diets include too much fat, sugar, caffeine, and sodium and not enough nutrient-dense foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables and calcium-rich foods such as dairy products. Furthermore, their diets lack an adequate amount of fiber. In addition to these problems of what to eat, and what not to eat, many teens also struggle with how much to eat. While some teens eat more calories in a day than their bodies require and subsequently become obese, other teens obsess about gaining weight and battle negative body image causing these teens to overly restrict their food intake and become dangerously underweight.

During the teen years, youth have much more control over their eating habits and diets, than they did in their younger years. Teens often eat most of their food outside of their home, whether it is lunch in the school cafeteria, snacks at friends' houses, or pizza after the school basketball game. Nonetheless, parents are still able to positively influence their teens' food choices and foster healthy eating habits. In order for this to occur, parents must be somewhat knowledgeable about the dietary requirements for growing adolescents and understand their basic nutritional needs. Second, parents can become healthy role models for their youth who learn a great deal more by observing others, than from long and lengthy lectures about the virtues of a good diet. Third, parents can foster and promote their teens' ability to make wise and healthy food choices by providing some structure in the home to facilitate these learning opportunities.

We will begin by providing parents some basic information about the caloric requirements for adolescents. But because all calories are not equal, we will then review the basic nutritional guidelines for adolescents as suggested by American Dietetic Association and the Food and Nutrition Information Center at the United States Department of Agriculture. Finally, we will provide some practical suggestions that will enable parents to assist their teens to make healthy food choices. Teenage caloric requirements

A good starting point for any healthy diet is an understanding of how much food to eat; i.e., the caloric requirements a body needs to grow and develop without becoming underweight, or overweight. Caloric requirements vary according to age, sex, activity level, and genetics that establish the body's metabolism (the rate at which the body burns calories). In general, guys need to eat more than girls during adolescence, and more active youth need to eat more than less active youth. As well, adolescents' caloric needs can fluctuate daily depending on youths' changing activity levels. For the purpose of this article, teens who get less than 30 minutes of vigorous exercise in a day are considered sedentary. Teens who exercise 30 to 60 minutes a day are considered moderately active. Teens are considered active when they get more than an hour of exercise each day.

For adolescent males, the daily number of calories required for optimal health gradually increases by about 200 calories every one-two years during early adolescence, then will peak during middle adolescence, and then will decrease by approximately 200 calories in late adolescence. In general, sedentary 12-year-old males need about 1800 calories each day. Sedentary males' daily recommended caloric intake peaks at 2600 calories around age 19-20 years old. Then, it decreases to 2400 calories a day from ages 21 through 24 years. However, moderately active teen boys between the ages of 12-13 years need about 2200 calories per day. That need peaks at 2800 calories per day from around age 16 and remains at that level for the remainder of adolescence, if the youth continues to exercise at those levels. Active teen guys have significantly larger daily calorie requirements. At age 12, active boys need about 2400 calories a day to stay healthy. That need increases by 200 calories each year the youth ages, and the daily calorie requirement peaks at 3200 calories between the ages of 16 and 18 years old. However, young men in late adolescence still need about 3000 calories per day as long as they stay physically active at these levels.

APPROXIMATE CALORIC REQUIREMENTS FOR ADOLESCENT MALES:

Adolescent Male Eating Chart

All things being equal, the daily caloric requirements for adolescent females are noticeably lower than for their male counterparts. Furthermore as girls mature, their caloric requirements remain relatively stable relative to boys. For example, sedentary teen girls around the ages of 12-13 years need about 1600 calories per day, and their daily calorie requirement reaches the highest level around age 19 years at 2000 calories. As long as they remain sedentary, that requirement will stay the same through the rest of adolescence and into adulthood. When teen ladies are moderately active, they need about 2000 calories every day from ages 12 through 18 years. That need only slightly increases to 2200 calories everyday for the rest of adolescence. Active teen girls need about 2200 calories per day when they are 12-13 years old, and that daily need rises to 2400 calories from ages 14 through 24 years.

APPROXIMATE CALORIC REQUIREMENTS FOR ADOLESCENT FEMALES:

Adolescent Female Eating