‘Tweens and teenagers need extra fuel for healthy mind and body

Aug. 28, 2023
teenagers eating around a table. Teenagers need to consume a certain amount of calories to stay healthy.
‘Tweens and teens need healthy foods and enough calories to fuel their active lives and busy schedules. Photo: Getty Images.

Busy schedules, active lives and fluctuating moods can cause parents to worry about whether their tweens and teens are getting the proper nutrition they need in middle and high school.

“Kids often have a hard time fueling their activities, especially in Steamboat where so many are involved in year-round athletics,” said Cara Marrs, registered dietitian nutritionist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “We need to remember that they’re not just fueling for sports and activities like adults, but they are forming organs and bones as well.”

How many calories should a teenager eat a day?

According to Marrs, in terms of caloric intake, there is a difference between boys and girls, pre-adolescents and 16- or 17-year-olds, and athletes and non-athletes. It could further depend upon how many hours a day a girl or boy practices, the specific sport and how much they weigh. Still, some broad ballpark numbers to keep in mind are:

  • For children ages 6-10 = 2,000 calories/day.
  • For boys ages 11-15 = 2,500/daily and girls = 2,200/daily.
  • Older teens = about 3,000 calories a day, but more active athletes may need up to 5,000/daily.

With so many active student athletes in Steamboat, Marrs said a big concern is students who aren’t consuming enough daily calories. This can lead to RED-S, or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports. It’s not necessarily an intentional restriction of calories, but rather unintentional restriction because of students’ busy lifestyles.

Marrs encourages parents to pay attention and possibly seek professional assistance if their child:

  • Is sick a lot.
  • Stops growing or menstruating.
  • Has dramatic weight loss.
  • Shows a decrease in performance in the classroom or on the field.
  • Is overly fatigued.
  • Is not sleeping well.
  • Shows a delay in growth or falling behind their growth chart.

What ‘fuel’ do teenagers need?

As far as “fuel,” the basic groups include:

  • Carbohydrates to maintain and provide energy. “We really need to focus on carbs and getting them from nourishing sources such as fruits, vegetables like peas, corn and potatoes, whole grains and beans,” said Marrs.
  • Healthy fats to feed the brain and hormones. Good sources are avocadoes, salmon, tuna, and nuts and seeds.
  • Protein to help boost the immune system and build and repair muscles. Protein is found in foods such as beef, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy, tofu, nuts and seeds.
  • Vitamins and minerals. “Kids need these, in particular Vitamin D, calcium and iron, to build strong bodies,” said Marrs.

She says to try to limit ultra-processed food with scores of ingredients, but don’t create taboos or ultimatums around certain foods as it can create issues. Parents can set a good example for their children by making health food choices in front of them, sharing meals together when possible, and offering lots of options and choices when it comes to vegetables, fruits, whole grains, protein, carbs and fats.

“It is imperative for our kids to not watch their parents overly restrict their own meals,” said Marrs. “It’s something I cannot stress enough.”

One area that she does worry about includes the “toxic online diet culture” that some teens become enamored with that pushes extreme diets, pre-workout drinks that contain too much caffeine, excessive amounts of protein powder and supplements like creatine.

Marrs is a big proponent of educating kids about the importance of eating healthy and how proper “fueling” is a crucial part of their training, just as working out on the field or in the gym.

“Kids are smart, they’re savvy, and if we talk to them in an adult manner about the reasons why we want them to be eating in a nourishing way, you often get a good response from them,” she said.

This story first appeared in the Steamboat Pilot.

About the author

Mary Gay Broderick is a Denver-based freelance writer with more than 25 years experience in journalism, marketing, public relations and communications. She enjoys telling compelling stories about healthcare, especially the dedicated UCHealth professionals and the people whose lives they transform. She enjoys skiing, hiking, biking and traveling, along with baking (mostly) successful desserts for her husband and three daughters.