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Puberty is a time of rapid growth for kids, so they need a lot of fuel to keep them going. This means their parents spend a lot of time feeding kids who seem suddenly insatiable.
This is all healthy and natural, says Kristi King, senior pediatric dietitian at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics—it's just what teens and tweens are eating that's the main concern.
“During puberty and adolescence, most of the time they [pubescent adolescents] are gaining about 50 percent of what their adult body weight is going to be,” King says. “Their needs are definitely going to be increased versus when they were a younger child or what Mom and Dad's needs might be.”
Puberty is a crucial time to make sure kids learn about alternatives to fatty and MSG-loaded foods, because they are eating more meals away from their parents' watchful eyes. After all, "the biggest pressure with children [when it comes to nutrition] is peer-pressure eating. It's very difficult to get carrots and broccoli and dip when the other kids are eating pizza,” says Yolanda Bergman, a Los Angeles-based certified nutritionist and head of the weight loss division at Epione Medical Corporation.
Iron is important for all kids going through puberty, but it is especially important for girls. Girls who begin to go through menstruation are “susceptible to anemia and iron deficiency,” says King, so lean meats should be a regular part of their diet.
King lists raisins as a good source for iron and notes that "beans, spinach and eggs are some really good sources of iron, specifically for menstruating females.”
King stresses that children going through puberty also need a diet that focuses on protein, as the protein helps bones, organ tissue and other parts of the body grow. While protein can be found in the lean meats and beans that also help with iron, it's also available in seafood sources like salmon patties and tuna sandwiches. Watch out for too much mayonnaise and other toppings typical with these options, however, as they can negate a lot of the good by adding too much fat to the dish.
Both Bergman and King say that teens also need to opt for healthy, natural beverages like water that will keep them hydrated, flush out toxins and give them energy to get through the long days of schoolwork and activities.
"Those juices, those energy drinks and sodas, can all add a lot of extra calories that some people going through puberty may not need," says King.
While there's no magic number for how much water a child should drink during the day, the best advice is to drink water at every meal and add more if the weather is hot or if the child is participating in sports.
Bergman says to stock up on drinks like SmartWater (a favorite of the yoga movement) and nutrient-themed vitaminwater if your child balks at plain water because they have ingredients like electrolytes and added vitamins.
As children grow into adulthood, King says it's common for them to decrease their calcium intake, which could affect their bones and muscles.
“We want to make sure that they get all the calcium that they need. And most adolescents need about 1200 mg of calcium a day. We recommend that to be from a low-fat dairy source, whether that be milk or low-fat cheese or yogurt, because the calcium is going to be better absorbed from food rather than a supplement. About three to four servings a day would be appropriate for a child going through puberty.”
King also recommends this source of B vitamins (also known as folic acid). Found naturally in some foods, folate helps with cell growth and prevents anemia. King says to look for sources like spinach and other leafy greens. It's also available in oranges and other citrus fruits and juices, dried beans and lentils and whole wheat breads. This is something that can be taken care of in one meal, as some cereals are fortified with the full amount of the daily value of folic acid (about 400 micrograms).
King says it is also important to include zinc in teens' diets because it helps build and repair DNA to help kids grow. Zinc can be found in fortified cereals, poultry, lean meats and other foods that teenagers should already be eating. Teenage boys need about 11 milligrams of zinc a day, while girls need about nine milligrams.