Proper nutrition is essential for the growth and development of teenagers. During the adolescent years, teenagers experience rapid physical changes and growth spurts that increase their nutritional needs.
However, many teenagers develop poor eating habits that can lead to nutritional deficiencies. Common deficiencies in teenagers include iron, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. Identifying these deficiencies early and making dietary changes can help teenagers meet their unique nutritional requirements.
Common Nutritional Deficiencies In Teenagers
? Iron Deficiency
Iron deficiency is one of the most prevalent nutritional deficiencies among teenagers, especially teenage girls. Iron is crucial for the production of hemoglobin, which transports oxygen in the blood. Rapid growth during puberty increases iron requirements.
Heavy menstrual bleeding also increases iron needs in teen girls. Symptoms of iron deficiency include fatigue, pale skin, headaches, dizziness, and reduced immunity. Teenagers following fad diets or restricting calories are also at risk for iron deficiency.
? Calcium Deficiency
Calcium is essential for building strong, dense bones during the adolescent growth spurt. If teenagers do not consume enough calcium, they can develop weak bones that are prone to fractures and osteoporosis later in life. Many teenagers fail to meet calcium recommendations.
Lactose intolerance, milk allergies, and avoiding dairy products put some teenagers at a greater risk for calcium deficiency. Symptoms include muscle cramps, numbness, and tingling. Inadequate calcium can also contribute to stress fractures in physically active teenagers.
? Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D promotes calcium absorption and supports immune function. Due to spending more time indoors, use of sunscreen, and high rates of obesity, vitamin D deficiency is common among teenagers.
Signs of vitamin D deficiency include frequent illness and infections, muscle weakness, bone, and joint pain. Severe vitamin D deficiency can lead to rickets, which causes bone deformities. Teenagers with dark skin are at an even greater risk for deficiency.
? Vitamin B12 Deficiency
Vitamin B12 plays a vital role in nerve function, DNA production, and red blood cell formation. Some teenagers are at risk for vitamin B12 deficiency, especially those following vegetarian or vegan diets.
Teenagers who take medication to treat acid reflux are also at risk since this medication can reduce vitamin B12 absorption. Symptoms include fatigue, neurological changes like numbness and tingling, difficulty concentrating, and megaloblastic anemia.
Why Are Teenagers At Risk For Nutritional Deficiencies?
- Poor Dietary Habits: Many teenagers develop poor eating habits like skipping breakfast, fasting, following fad diets, or choosing fast food. Busy schedules, eating on the go, and increased independence with food choices may contribute to these poor dietary habits. Teenagers requiring higher calorie intakes may restrict intake to lose or maintain weight. These unhealthy eating behaviors put teenagers at risk for deficiencies.
- Increased Nutrient Needs: Rapid growth, development, and sexual maturation greatly increase nutritional needs during adolescence. Teenagers require higher amounts of protein, vitamins, and minerals like iron, calcium, and zinc. However, food intake often does not match increased needs. Female teenagers also lose significant iron during menstruation. Higher needs coupled with poor diets lead to widespread deficiencies.
- Limited Variety: Many teenagers consume a very narrow range of foods like pizza, burgers, pasta, and sweets. Eliminating entire food groups like fruits, vegetables, dairy products or meat can make it challenging to meet nutrient needs. A limited diet increases the risk of deficiencies. Teenagers may also avoid foods like milk due to lactose intolerance or other issues like food allergies.
- Special Diets: Vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, paleo, and other restricted diets require diligence to prevent nutritional shortfalls. These diets can make it difficult to consume adequate protein, iron, vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, and zinc. Teenagers may undertake restricted diets without proper guidance, further increasing deficiency risk. Eating disorders involving severe restriction also contribute to deficiencies.
How Can Parents Help Their Teenagers Get The Nutrients They Need?
? Provide Nutrient-Dense Foods
Keep the kitchen stocked with nutrient-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, eggs, dairy products, nuts, and seeds. Involve teenagers in preparing well-balanced meals and snacks to improve diet quality.
Ensure adequate protein at all meals and snacks to support growth. Serve iron-rich foods like meat, eggs, beans, and dark leafy greens. Boost calcium intake with milk, yogurt, cheese, and fortified plant-based milk alternatives if tolerated.
? Discuss Dietary Habits
Openly discuss dietary habits without judgment to understand teenagers’ food choices. Express concern over severely restricted diets skipped meals or poor food intake. Recommend meeting with a doctor or registered dietitian to improve eating habits. Set a positive example by consuming nutritious foods yourself. Eat meals together as a family whenever possible.
? Consider Dietary Supplements
Consult a doctor to determine if dietary supplements are needed to correct deficiencies. An iron supplement may be warranted for teenage girls who are deficient. Vitamin D and calcium supplements may help teenagers who avoid dairy products.
A vitamin B12 supplement can benefit teenagers following strict vegetarian or vegan diets. Always discuss supplement use with a pediatrician before providing it to teenagers.
? Limit Junk Food
Set reasonable limits on junk food, soda, and sugar-sweetened beverages, which can displace healthier options. Keep tempting nutrient-poor snacks out of the house. Monitor portion sizes of high-calorie fast food and treats so they don’t excessively displace more nutritious foods.
? Focus on Balance
Emphasize all foods fitting into a healthy diet in moderation, without demonizing entire food groups or nutrients like fat or carbs. Overly restrictive eating patterns increase the risk of deficiencies. Promote balanced eating that provides sufficient protein foods, fruits, vegetables, fiber, healthy fats, dairy, and important vitamins and minerals.
Teenagers have increased nutrient needs but often make poor dietary choices that can lead to deficiencies. Common nutritional deficiencies in teenagers include iron, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. Contributing factors include busy schedules, food restrictions, eating disorders, junk food habits, and avoidance of key food groups.
Parents can help promote adequate nutrition by providing nutrient-dense whole foods at home, discussing concerns over eating habits, modeling balanced eating, limiting junk foods, and working with a doctor or dietitian if needed.
Paying attention to nutritional deficiencies and making dietary improvements can ensure teenagers get the nutrients they require for proper growth and development during this critical life stage.
A: Fatigue, pale skin, headaches, dizziness, reduced immunity, and poor concentration are some of the most common symptoms of iron deficiency in teenagers. Teenage girls who experience heavy menstrual bleeding are also at high risk for iron deficiency.
A: Signs of calcium deficiency include muscle cramps, numbness or tingling sensations, tooth decay, and slow growth. Teenagers who avoid dairy products or have lactose intolerance are at higher risk for calcium deficiency. Blood tests can confirm low calcium levels.
A: Teenagers require extra vitamin D and calcium to support rapid bone growth and development during puberty and the adolescent growth spurt. Vitamin D promotes calcium absorption for bone mineralization. Inadequate vitamin D and calcium during teenage years can increase osteoporosis risk later in adulthood.
A: Teenagers who follow strict vegetarian or vegan diets are at the highest risk for vitamin B12 deficiency since vitamin B12 is naturally found only in animal foods. Teenagers who take medication for acid reflux are also at increased risk due to impaired vitamin B12 absorption.
A: Protein needs increase substantially during teenage growth spurts. To meet these needs, teenagers should consume protein foods like meats, eggs, dairy products, beans, nuts, and seeds at all meals and snacks. Parents can help by providing nutritious protein foods at home.