Teens, do you want to be in a happier mood, do better in school, have more energy for fun activities and make friends who share common interests in music and sports?
Well, that’s a no-brainer. And speaking of the brain, feeding it the right foods is exactly what can help you achieve this state of teenage bliss.
Teens are faced with myriad physical changes and academic demands, all while being bombarded by what their peers are doing – from what not to wear, to what to say and when to say it, to how to get the attention of you know who. And in the midst of all this, the body’s most critical organ – the brain – is still developing, says Dr. Neville Golden, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Nutrition and chief of adolescent medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine in California.
“If [teens] don’t eat right, they can become irritable, depressed [and] develop problems such as obesity and eating disorders – and those have a whole host of psychological morbidities,” Golden says, adding that proper nutrition can help prevent and manage these conditions.
How the Teen Brain Develops
During adolescence, the brain is undergoing serious renovations. Axons – the long nerve fibers that neurons use to fire signals to other neurons, muscles and glands – develop a protective layer known as myelin, or white matter. This rapid-fire action boosts the brain’s power to accept and transmit information. The brain’s dendrites – which send electrical messages to the neurons – extend and grow more branchlike during these developmental years. At the same time, the synapses most frequently used to process information grow stronger, while the weaker synapses that aren’t used begin to die.
This brain remodeling phase in a teen’s life is known as “pruning,” says Jeanette Johnstone, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of neurology at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, where she’s also a child and adolescent psychologist resident. And without proper nutrition, the brain’s ability to learn new tasks or skills decreases – certainly not good news for students.
“It’s a huge time of growth and development in a person’s life. Therefore, the brain needs adequate sleep, hydration and good food,” Johnstone says. “What you eat impacts your brain, because your gut and brain are connected.”
What Teens Need
The AAP recommends teens eat a balanced diet. That means aiming for three meals a day and two healthy snacks, and not singling out “good” or “bad” foods, says Heather Mangieri, a registered dietitian in Pittsburgh and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “No single food will cause harm to the brain, but there are certainly some foods that are considered beneficial for brain health,” Mangieri says. “The most important consideration for feeding teenagers is that the brain is fed.”
What kind of food a teen eats – plus how much and when – affects teens’ attention, memory and ability to focus – which translates to how well a student learns in school, Mangieri says. No particular food will boost your performance before a major test, but if you want to give yourself the best advantage, start by eating breakfast each day. Kicking off the day with a breakfast that includes complex carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats can regulate blood pressure and keep teens satisfied for a few hours until lunch. Getting too few carbs, calories, vitamins and minerals can lead to poor concentration and feeling tired. Here’s what teens should be consuming each day:
Calories. Adolescents need more daily calories than at any other point in their lives, according to the AAP. The group recommends teenage boys consume 2,800 calories each day and suggests 2,200 daily calories for teen girls. These caloric needs are greater for teens who are also athletes or in certain stages of development: “A 12-year-old going through puberty is going to need more calories, and nutrient needs will be higher than another child at that age who has not yet reached puberty,” Mangieri says. And dieting to cut calories often isn’t healthy – teens who do so run the risk of falling short on essential nutrients. “Teens need more nutrients than anyone,” Mangieri adds.
Protein. Teens need 45 to 60 grams of protein each day, whether it’s from meat, fish or dairy. Vegetarian teens may need to boost their intake of soy foods, beans and nuts to meet this nutritional guideline. Female teens should aim for 5 ounces of lean meat or beans each day, while males need 6 ounces. One study published in Advances in Nutrition in 2012 suggests that eating high-protein foods helps produce hormones that tell the brain it’s full, reducing the risk for overeating.
Fat. Healthy fats help energize the body and absorb vitamins A, D, E and K. There are three types of fat: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated. Monounsaturated fat is found in a variety of foods and oils; it’s thought to improve blood cholesterol levels and lower blood sugar. Polyunsaturated fats, which are found mostly in plant-based foods and oils, can also improve blood cholesterol levels. Saturated fats, on the other hand – the most harmful of the three – are found in most animal sources of food, such as red meat and full-fat dairy products. Experts recommend avoiding saturated fat because it’s linked to a rise in cholesterol levels and an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. The AAP recommends that fat account for less than 30 percent of a teen’s daily calories. Avocados – one example of a healthy fat – are considered superfoods because they improve blood flow to the brain; one study found they strengthen the part of the brain responsible for planning and critical thinking. Other good sources of healthy fats include salmon, nuts, whole eggs, olive oil and coconut oil.
Carbohydrates. Teens should consume at least 130 grams of carbs each day, which equates to 50 to 60 percent of their daily calories. Complex carbs turn sugar into energy, and these “are necessary for focus and energy,” Mangieri says. Find them in peas, beans, whole grains and vegetables. They’re a much better choice than simple carbohydrates, which are best avoided – they’re found in processed and refined products such as candy, table sugar, syrups and sweetened drinks. Whole grains such as brown rice or popcorn are another source of energy-providing complex carbs. Teens should aim for 7 ounces of whole grains each day.
Fruits and vegetables. Two cups of fruit a day are adequate for males, while 1.5 cups are recommended for female teens. There’s good reason: The Nurses’ Health Study – a long-running study of 16,000 women from 1995 to 2001 – found that eating more than one half-cup serving of blueberries per week or two half-cups of strawberries a week delayed cognitive aging by more than two years. Teens should consume about 3 cups of vegetables a day – they’ve also been found to protect against ailing memory and decision-making skills.
Calcium. Step away from the soda and sweetened beverages, teens. These products can disrupt the way the body absorbs and uses calcium. Bone calcium begins to decrease in young adulthood, and teens who don’t get enough calcium have an increased risk for developing bone loss and fractures down the line. That’s why all teens should get about 1,300 mg of calcium each day from dairy, calcium-fortified juice and calcium-fortified cereal. Other calcium-rich sources include sesame seeds and leafy greens like kale.
Iron. Teen boys should aim for 8 to 11 mg of iron each day; females need 15 mg per day, and up to 18 mg once they reach age 18 onward. “Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies across the life span,” Mangieri says. “If you’re not getting enough, you run the risk of not being able to focus or concentrate.” The easiest source of iron is fortified cereal, Mangieri says – aim for 3/4 cup daily.
Vitamin D. Teens need 600 IU of vitamin D a day – which is tough to get via food sources, Mangieri says. One cup of milk, for example, only provides 115 IU. “We can synthesize it from sunlight when it hits our skin, but one of the best sources of vitamin D is getting a combination of vitamin D and calcium from fortified milk,” Mangieri says. Teens should drink three to four servings of milk each day. Other vitamin D sources include yogurt and oily fish, such as salmon, fresh tuna and mackerel and fish liver oil.
Omega-3 fats. The best way to get enough of this vital nutrient – which has been linked to lowered risk for dementia and improved focus and memory – is through salmon, sardines, mackerel, pilchards, herring, trout and fresh tuna. Just like adults, teens should aim to eat two meals of fatty fish, such as salmon or sardines, every week.
If you’re not sure how to get started on a brain-healthy eating plan, Mangieri recommends this sample daily menu. Note that if you remove one item, it’s important to replace it with another option that’s a nutritional equivalent – otherwise, the menu won’t necessarily provide enough calories and nutrients. And some teens may require larger servings depending on their stage of development.
2 eggs mixed with spinach and tomatoes (or other vegetables)
2 pieces of toast
1 cup milk (or other dairy)
1 banana (or other fruit)
Tuna salad sandwich with cheese on whole-wheat bread
Pretzels (1/2 cup to 1.5 cups)
Orange (or other fruit)
1 cup of milk
1 cup bran cereal with milk
One 4- to 5-ounce chicken breast
1 cup broccoli
1 baked white or sweet potato
Greek yogurt with granola, berries and nuts
Corrected on Jan. 13, 2016: A previous version of this article incorrectly suggested one source of iron is better than another.
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