What foods do teenagers *really* need in their diets?

Living as we do in the age of green juices, Instagram wellness gurus and friends who just happen to turn gluten intolerant overnight (except for, mysteriously, Colin the Caterpillar cake?) it’s easy to feel confused about food.

On the one hand: diets suck. Body positivity is the way forward, ‘strong not skinny’ is so now and we know it’s so much healthier to have a cookie when you fancy one than to live a life of obsessive calorie-counting. But on the other hand, when you’re fed up of bad skin, feel like hormones are taking over your body and need all the energy you can get to keep up with your busy, busy life, food could hold some answers.

“Teenage years are BIG years for your body – there’s a lot of change and development,” says Alice Walker, a registered dietician (which FYI is a legal title, whereas anyone can call themselves a ‘nutritionist’ without professional qualifications). “Your body is calling out for good nutritious food.” So how do we sort the true superfoods from the trendy fads? Ask a professional, that’s how.

Here are Alice’s top five nutrients to be eating more of in 2017. Tuck in!

1. Fibre – keeps things moving

“First up is fibre, which we don’t seem to be consuming enough of these days and we need it to keep [lol] regular. Fruit and vegetables are an excellent source of fibre and have the added benefit of being rich in other vitamins and minerals too – so if you aim to meet your 5-a-day of fruit and veg then that’s a good target. A portion could be an apple, two satsumas, two broccoli spears or a banana. Wholemeal carbs (oats, bread, pasta and rice), nuts, seeds, lentils and beans are also great sources. Long-term low intake of fibre can cause digestive problems later in life, so it’s important to get your fill.” 

2. Protein – power up

“A teenage body requires plenty of protein. Having good skin, hair and nails could all be down to having enough protein in your diet – but that doesn’t mean you need to go and drink protein shakes. Lean cuts of meat, fish, yoghurt, milk, eggs, quinoa, soya and tofu all are good sources of protein. Be savvy and include a portion of protein at each meal – that could be a palm-sized amount of the above, a chicken fillet, a salmon steak, an individual pot of yoghurt or a couple of eggs.” 

3. Calcium and Vitamin D – besties for bones

“These two together make a heavenly pair for strong bones. Teenage years are crucial as it is when bone strength peaks, and a diet lacking in calcium and vitamin D could lead to Osteoporosis (thinning of the bones). Calcium is, famously, found in dairy products like milk, yoghurt and cheese – but if you’re vegan or don’t like the white stuff then oily fish, calcium-enriched breakfast cereals and green leafy vegetables can also help. Again, aiming to have a portion at each meal would be a good start. Meanwhile vitamin D is added to lots of breakfast cereals, milk and margarine but the best source is actually direct from sunlight. As well as eating a balanced diet we should also have an active lifestyle, so fresh air and safe sun exposure [remember your SPF] for at least 15 minutes per day also benefits those bones.”

4. Iron – for inner strength

“We lose iron every month in our menstrual cycle, so it’s extra important to make sure you get enough once you start your period. Found in red meat, green leafy vegetables, fortified breakfast cereals, dried fruit and nuts, iron also helps to carry oxygen around the body, giving our muscles energy to move – so there is some truth in Popeye downing the tins of spinach to make him strong! If you don’t think that offal is awful then liver or kidneys are fab sources of iron. Vitamin C can also help the absorption of Iron from plant sources – so a perfect breakfast could be breakfast cereal with a glass of orange juice to wash it down with.

5. Fats – oil’s well that ends well

“Finally, let’s talk fat. Good fats are essential – our bodies can’t make them, so we need to eat them. Let’s not worry about the long complicated names but oily fish (like mackerel, sardines or salmon), avocado, nuts, seeds, rapeseed and olive oil all contain essential fats that can help give you great skin. Fats found in processed products – like cakes, crisps, biscuits and pastries – contain the less brilliant fats that it’s better to eat only in moderation.”

“But most importantly,” says Alice, “enjoy your food and be creative with it – variety is the spice of life!”

So there you go; proper, medical permission to fill up your plate with all kinds of food. Because there’s so much more to life than green juice.

Alice Walker is a registered dietician.

Image: Manjit Thapp

Sign up and get the latest updates

Get updates on all the latest gossip and advice. Just give us your email address and we’ll do the rest.