Diet and Weight Loss Advice for Teenagers

teenager couple living a healthy life

Diets For Teens

A good, healthy and well balanced diet is vital for teenagers. The teenage years is a period of growth and development, and good nutrition is essential to ensure a healthy body is developed. Malnutrition can result in stunted growth, and worse, can lead to long-term conditions such as osteoporosis (fragile, weakened bones).

Many teens are quite aware that they have a weight problem but are unsure how the problem occurred or how to reverse it. If you are an overweight teenager you have a big advantage over most overweight adults. You are still young, so your metabolism is higher and you will burn that fat off quicker once you start dieting and exercising. So, read on to learn how to lose weight for teens.

Few teenagers are aware that their daily calorie requirements are so much higher than anyone else. For example, a very active 17 year old boy will on average require 3300 calories a day. So anyone playing competitive sports, involved in martial arts, athletics or gymnastics will need a lot more calories than active adults or their less active friends. This is 850 calories a day more than 17 year-olds that do no exercise.

For teenage girls the difference is also significant. Between the ages of 14 and 18 the average sedentary girls and young women (i.e. those that do not exercise) require around 1750 calories a day.

However, very active young women need 2400 calories a day, 650 calories a day more. This is one of the reasons why so often we here young women saying “my friend eats all the time and never gains weight“. It is usually because she is much more active and her metabolism is burning 650 calories more every day.

Caution: “Dieting is associated with potential negative physical health consequences” (Canadian Paediatric Society, 2004). There is a growing trend for teenagers, especially teenage girls, to go on a restrictive diet even when they are not overweight. Check your body mass index. If it says you are a normal weight, you do not need to diet. Instead, take up a sport, active hobby or fitness plan to get in shape. Focus on becoming fitter and you will look more toned, healthy and attractive.

Are Calorie Restrictive Diets Safe?

Many people are concerned that calorie restrictive diets are unsafe. There are so many horror stories about people starving themselves while trying to lose weight or people becoming anorexic that many people avoid even mentioning the word diet to teenagers. But dieting is essential and the only sure way to lose weight is to reduce calories.

As a general rule of thumb you need to have a calorie deficit of 1000 calories per day to lose 2 pounds per week. This means eating 1000 calories less than your daily recommended amount. Reducing calories to around 1250 per day may help you achieve this.

However, good nutrition is absolutely essential. For teenagers, whether they are maintaining weight or trying to lose weight, it is very important to have a varied diet that is very nutritious.

Ideally staple foods (bread, pasta, rice, potatoes) should be controlled well so that a lot of energy comes from a wide variety of fresh fruits, vegetables and pulses, as well as healthy proteins (fish, poultry, pulses) and healthy fats (oily fish, olive oil, seeds).

But Everyone Fails to Lose Weight on a Diet!

Lets be clear. Every single person that has ever dieting and failed to lose weight while “on a diet” has broken their diet. If you restrict calories you will lose weight.

It only takes a very small snack to go over your daily calorie limit for weight loss though. 2 glasses of juice, a sandwich, some cookies, one soda – any of those is enough to stop weight loss in its tracks. If you go on a diet, stick to it. Diet plans do not fail, dieters fail.

Teenagers Need More Calories Than Adults

Because the teenage years are a time of rapid growth and development teenagers require more Calories to sustain and fuel this growth. However, as so many diets are nutritionally poor, this is often the start of many problems. People crave more food but only eat energy dense food that does not provide adequate vitamins, minerals, proteins or fats.

How many calories should a teenager eat?

Calorie Needs of Girls and Young Women

Age/years Sedentary Low activity High activity
12-13 1700 2000 2250
14-16 1750 2100 2350
17-18 1750 2100 2400

Calorie Needs of Boys and Young Men

Age/years Sedentary Low activity High activity
12-13 1900 2250 2600
14-16 2300 2700 3100
17-18 2450 2900 3300

Sedentary means that you do nothing, just sit on a sofa watching television, and often eating. Low activity is for people that walk a little every day, such as to and from school, as well as some occasional sports, such as compulsory physical education lessons. High activity is for anyone that does regular exercise, such as daily running, working out with a sports team or training in the gym 2-3 times a week.

As you can see, no teenager should be eating less than 1000 calories a day, even those trying to lose weight. Active teenage men and women have the highest calorie needs than at any other point in their lives.

Many teens want to know exactly how much to eat, for example, one teenager asked us how many calories should a 16 year old boy eat? The answer is, if you are doing some exercise each week and are reasonably active, then you should be eating 3100 Calories a day to maintain your weight, while a sedentary 16 year old boy only needs 2300 Calories. Likewise, if a 16 year old woman was to ask how many calories should a 16 year old girl have, then the answer would be 2350 if you are active in sport and exercise, although only 1750 if you do no exercise at all. This teaches us two important lessons: First, being active means you can eat much more – 16 year old girls its 600 Calories more, and for same aged boys its 800 Calories more.

What is most surprising is that a sedentary teenage boy between 14 and 18 needs as many Calories as a very active woman of the same age!

What is most important is that rather than getting these calories from junk food, sugar, bread and soda it is gained from fruits, vegetables, pulses, lean meats, dairy and fish. It is vital that teens understand what a healthy diet is.

The Weight Loss Health Risk

Many teenagers start to become more aware of their bodies at the same time that their bodies need more nutrition for growth. This results in a dangerous pattern as people try to “lose weight” by limiting calories. Many teens skip meals to lose weight, often breakfast is the meal that is missed. This only results in starving the muscles, bones and internal organs, while still providing energy for fat storage.

If you are generally inactive, your calorie needs are relatively low. Coupled with a diet, this means that you will be limited what is eaten. This invariable leads to a diet that mostly consists of starchy staple foods and sugar, such as pasta, bread, potatoes, candy, soda, chocolate and other foods that give a “sugar fix” to fuel the brain’s energy needs.

We have written some weight loss advice for teenagers. It is still important that teenagers understand the importance of being a healthy weight as well as eating a healthy diet. Getting the balance can seem hard, however, really it is just a matter of eating a varied but healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise.


Low Calorie Health Risks

As a result of low calorie and unhealthy diets both boys and girls can suffer from stunted growth. Many people ask “how do I grow taller” while also wanting to know “how do I lose my belly”. All too often people are not reaching their potential growth because they are concerned about carry a little bit of fat.

Poor Diet Leads To Osteoporosis

During the teenage years the bones grow and develop. The bone tissue that is developed is then carried throughout the rest you your life. Many girls that follow low calorie diets during their teenage years go on to develop osteoporosis later in life. This is when the bones are weakened and more prone to fracture. It is a crippling disease for many women later in life, but the problems start from poor diet in the teenage years.

Teenagers Skipping Meals To Stay Thin

In October 2009 the Schools Health Education Unit in the UK issued a warning that more teenagers had been starving themselves and skipping meals in an attempt to lose weight. In direct contrast to the stories about how obese teenagers are refusing gastric surgery, there is still the other end of the eating disorder spectrum that is plaguing our society: under-eating.

Under-eating can lead to bulimia (deliberately vomiting after a meal) or anorexia (just not eating). Like obesity, both are psychological problems more than physical. The girls (it often affects girls far more than boys) think that they are too fat, when actually they are underweight.

All too often we receive comments from teenagers asking how they can lose more weight, but when they provide their height and weight, it is often the case that they are underweight or at the low end of being an ideal weight.

The recent research carried out in the UK by the Schools Health Education Unit found that about 10% of all teenage school girls skipped 2 meals each day – breakfast and lunch – and just ate dinner in the evening when they got home. Also, 26% of girls aged 14-15 years and 20% of 12 years olds skipped breakfast on a regular basis.

Skipping meals if often damaging and leads to even worse eating disorders in later life, such as bulimia and anorexia. The problem is still that many girls think that the only way to look beautiful, like the actresses and pop stars they see in the glossy magazines, is to eat less food. The sad fact is that this makes the body age quicker and the skin deteriorate rapidly. Looking young and healthy requires a healthy diet and exercise.

If more athletes were role models then maybe our teenagers will start to learn how to be fit and healthy rather than skinny and sickly. Most anorexics quickly learn to disguise their ill health with make-up, which is possibly one reason that girls are more likely to spiral to greater depths of anorexia than boys.

Really the only way to help people combat eating disorders is to identify and tackle the problems early on. Once again both schools and parents need to work together to ensure that children are eating a healthy, well balanced diet and getting regular exercise. If either party is left to take responsibility then children will continue to hide their problems until it is too late.


Vegetarian Diet Risk

Another common problem is that many teenagers decide to become vegetarians. However, few actually find out what makes a healthy vegetarian diet, so just follow their previous family diet but without the meat, chicken or fish. This quickly leads to malnutrition and poor health.

The problem becomes worse if veganism is followed, as this generally leads to a lack of calcium which increases risks of weakened bones.

A Healthy Vegetarian Diet For Teenagers

Many people become a vegetarian in their teenage years, and without proper support from family it can be difficult to follow a healthy vegetarian diet. So this article aims to serve both teenagers and parents to help teach them about how to stay healthy while being a vegetarian.

Studies show that often vegetarian diets are healthier than meat based diets, with fewer cases of obesity, heart disease and cancer amongst vegetarians. However, this does not mean that every approach to vegetarianism is healthy. A diet that relies too heavily on the staples (bread, rice, pasta, potato) is not going to provide adequate nutrition. Also a vegetarian diet that verges towards veganism can become low in essential fatty acids.

Eat To Grow

The teenage years are a period of rapid growth and development, so a diet must be healthy and provide a good balance of the macronutrients. Boys especially will start to develop more muscle and will require increased protein in the diet to ensure that they develop properly.

The key nutrients and vitamins are:

  • Protein – for muscle and tissue growth
  • Calcium – for health bones
  • Iron, zinc and vitamin B12 for health and development

Protein For Vegetarians

A teenager should aim to consume at least 0.34 grams of protein per kg weight (or around 0.43 g per 1 pound weight). Any less than this and there is a risk of muscle wastage as the body breaks down muscle tissue to supply proteins for more vital areas. Low protein vegetarian diets are unhealthy for this reason. Fortunately it is easy to get enough protein, here are some options:

  • 1 cup of soy milk / soy yogurt = 7 grams of protein
  • 5 ounces of tofu = 11 grams of protein
  • 1 tablespoon of peanut butter = 4 grams protein
  • 1 medium egg = 6 grams of protein

So if you weigh 40 kg you need around 14 grams of protein a day for healthy growth. This is really a minimum to prevent wastage. Teenage boys and young men should aim to consume at least 20 grams a day, and anyone that is doing some regular exercise will need more to help build stronger muscle tissue.

Calcium For Vegetarians

Calcium comes mostly from dairy fats and green leafy vegetables such as bok choy, cabbage, kale and collard greens. Other vegetarian sources include tofu, dried figs, sesame butter, fortified soy milk, baked beans or even fortified orange juice.

Even though dairy milk contains more calcium that vegetables, the human body can actually absorb enough calcium from leafy greens such as kale and spinach, and also other vegetables such as broccoli, than it can from milk. Calcium is essential in our diet, however dairy milk is not a natural source.

Some studies have shown that excessive amounts of calcium from diary sources can cause health problems, such as prostate cancer and possibly ovarian cancer (Harvard research).

Iron For Vegetarians

Iron can be found in a variety of vegetarian foods, such as broccoli, spinach, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, lentils and pinto beans. Vegetarians should really make a mixed bean salad or stew a regular meal because these foods really do provide many of the nutrients needed for healthy development.

One Snack Solution To Balanced Vegetarian Diet

Although a well balanced and varied diet is always the best option, there is one snack that can provide essential B and D vitamins, calcium and protein – a fortified soy milk.

What is most important is getting a varied diet. For maximum nutrition you need to be consuming a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, pulses and other non-animal products every day. Vegetarians that consume large quantities of bread and cheese tend to become unhealthy and are far more likely to put on weight. Overweight vegetarians can be as unhealthy as overweight meat eaters, so do make the mistake of thinking that just because someone is overweight that they are well nourished.

What Diet Should You Go On?

There are many healthy diets for teens, in fact, any balanced diet is healthy (although some do say that Med diets and vegetarian diets are the best!). All humans respond more or less the same way to food. Although to lose weight you just need to restrict calories, what you eat can determine if this task is easy or hard, and whether you will be healthy or unhealthy.

Studies have shown that when you reduce intake of high GI food and eat more protein appetite is reduced. People who get 25% of their energy needs from protein feel less hungry in the evening and as a result are far less likely to snack.

If you continue to eat sugar (raw and high GI foods such as bread, cakes, cookies) then your blood sugar levels fluctuate and you feel hungry more often.

If you wish to follow a particular diet plan then there are several that are suitable, but the popular ones at the moment are the Caveman Diet and the Dukan Diet. Both require you to be strict with your diet, but at the same time the diets are nutritious as they limit “empty carbs” and focus on nutritionally rich foods. This is really the basis of healthy eating.

Exercise for Fitness and Health

Exercise is also very important during teenage years. One of the main benefits of exercise is that it makes the whole body stronger and more efficient. The muscles, bones, lungs and heard all improve in strength.

Also, by working out on a regular basis calorie needs are increased. This means that more food is needed, which increases the likelihood of consuming all the daily nutritional requirements.

Many elderly people suffer malnutrition because as their muscles waste away their calorie needs plummet which results often in a poor diet as most energy comes from sugary snacks. Today we see the same problems with teenagers that do not exercise and go on low calorie diets to try to lose fat.

Also, the teenage years really do set you up for the rest of your life. Most professional athletes, footballers and sports persons all start during their teenage years. Setting a foundation in fitness and strength during this time is very important. Too many people make the mistake of leaving it too late.

Can I Just Start Exercising?

No. Exercise alone will not help you lose weight, although it will help a lot. People become overweight by eating too much food and then as a result of being overweight they become less active. To reverse weight gain you need to tackle the root cause, which is food, and not the effect, which is inactivity.

However, not exercising while trying to lose weight is a sure way to slow or stop weight loss completely if you are not totally strict with diet. Studies have shown that when people reduce calories their metabolism slows down, their body becomes more efficient as saving energy (fat).

Teenagers Can Do Almost Any Exercise

One worrying trend is that many teenagers, and also some adults, think that exercise is not healthy for teenagers. People have asked us “can I do circuit training, I am only 14?”. With the exception of heavy weight lifting (barbell squats, deadlifts, very heavy bench and shoulder presses) just about all other exercises are OK. Although even heavy weight lifting can be healthy if it is done with careful supervision.

One of our readers were even told by their parents not to exercise, to wait until they are 30 years old! Shockingly bad advice. For anyone that thinks that exercise is not good for teenagers, just watch the Youth Olympic Games which is for 14 to 18 year old athletes, or head to your local athletics club to see the teenagers training on the track.

Teenagers are developing towards their prime physical health, exercise is vital. As someone that spent many years in martial arts, I have seen many young teens develop into strong, fit and lean individuals by doing 2 intense workouts each week.

What Exercise Should You Do?

This really depends on how overweight you are right now. If you are very obese then walking everyday to start with is probably the best option. If you have access to a treadmill, stepper or elliptical trainer then theses provide a good workout. You should aim to walk for 45 minutes a day at a brisk pace, although to start with this may be too much. Start walking about 1 mile (about 20 minutes) and work up from there.

Younger teens, 13 and 14 year olds, should really concentrate on bodyweight exercises, old school gym exercises and circuit training. Martial arts, dance, gymnastics, athletics and running are all good options at this age.

Older teenagers, from 15 to 16 years onwards, can start doing weight training to lose weight and get fit. Once you reach 17 years old then heavier weight lifting can be done if your back has fully developed. Weight training is the only way to develop a strong and muscular look as opposed to a lean a fit look.

As you start to lose weight then you should start doing bodyweight workouts to increase fat burning and start building muscle and improving cardiovascular fitness. A simple circuit training routine can be done anywhere, even in the privacy of your bedroom.

Consider taking up a fitness activity outside of school. Martial arts, dance and mountain biking are good options.

Remember, once you lose weight you can do any sports or fitness activity that you desire – football, soccer, yoga, swimming etc. The World is your oyster.

End Your Relationship With Junk Food

Understand that most people who are overweight snack in between meals in addition to eating large main meals. It is usually these snacks that lead to weight gain. Why do people snack? Why do you snack? It is always for comfort. It is human nature to look for a comforting meal at times of worry, stress, depression or upset. Unless you are a pro athlete or bodybuilder, snacks are never eaten for their nutritional value.

There is an old saying that has been used by people trying to lose weight for years: “Nothing tastes as good as thin feels.

What this means is simply that the momentary feeling of pleasure that you gain from eating is not as great as the long term reward of being healthy and fit.

Human Nature is the Weight Losers Enemy

Again, human nature is our enemy. At times of crisis we instinctively want to eat, it is a survival mechanism. Eating feels good, again, a survival mechanism. The body is preparing itself for hardship. However, in our modern society this hardship never comes. The result is that days, weeks or months after continued overeating we become overweight and then obese.

Whenever you feel that you want to eat a snack remind yourself of this. Tell yourself that the new you will benefit from not eating that snack. Do not live for the moment, live for your future.

Quick Tip: Exercise suppresses hunger. Every time you want to eat a snack, go for a 10 minute walk / do 50 squats / 50 circuit training exercises. By the time you finish you will not feel hungry and would have forgotten about the snack!

Help Yourself Avoid Temptation

No matter how strong willed you are at this very moment there will be times during your diet that you a weaker. It is vital that you make your task of avoiding snacks as easy as possible. To do this you must insist that all snacks are kept out of sight at all times and instead healthy food is kept visible, such as a fruit bowl.

As a teenager you really need to get the support of your parents / carers if you want to lose weight. This is to ensure that your diet is healthy and that there are not snacks in sight. Out of sight is out of mind – this rule really works when it comes to diet.

You Can Do It

You can lose weight. It does not matter how overweight you are today, if you start a weight loss plan and stick to it you will lose weight in time. Even if you only lose 1 pound a week that is 52 pounds a year. This time next year you could be a new person.

Why Do It?

Write a list of reasons why you want to lose weight and keep referring to this list. Add more items when you develop new ambitions. Example of a list may be:

  • I want to look slim and healthy
  • I want to be able to play sport
  • I want to attract girls / boys!
  • I want to live a long and healthy life
  • I do not want to develop Type 2 Diabetes like my mom/dad/grandparents

All you have to do is overcome your natural instinct to eat all the time and do some exercise too. A simple healthy diet and exercise will soon see you losing weight.

A Message to Parents

Find out why your children are eating, not what they are eating. Although unhealthy food contributes to weight gain it is not the root cause of weight gain. The root cause is over eating. When teenagers are overeating there is usually an emotional cause.

Puberty and adolescence are difficult times and sometimes kids find comfort in eating. It is your job to spot this and take action, talk to your children about it. If you are also overweight then this is a good time to rethink your own lifestyle and the lifestyle of your whole family.


Calcium and Milk: What’s Best for Your Bones and Health?” Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Source.

Dieting in adolescence” Paediatr Child Health. 2004 September; 9(7): 487–491.

Discussion about the risk factors associated with dieting during adolescence as well as a look at the reasons why people diet, even when they are actually a healthy weight.

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