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The adolescent years are a pivotal time to build healthy habits for life. In the midst of busy schedules and daily pressures from school, peers, and activities, it’s easy for a teen’s nutrition and sleep quality to suffer.

Let’s compare nutrient needs for teens and adults—and get some helpful tips for making smart choices.1

teen drinking smoothie

Increased Nutrient Needs

As their bodies continue to grow and undergo hormonal changes, teens need more of certain nutrients.2 Here’s an overview of some essential nutrients and good sources of them.3

Calcium.4 About 98% of the body’s calcium is found in the bones. Since the most rapid rate of bone growth in an individual’s life span occurs from 12–15 years of age, teens require more calcium than adults to build strong teeth and bones.

  • Recommended daily amounts: 1,300 mg for teens; 1,000 mg for adults
  • Good sources: dairy products such as milk, calcium-fortified plant-based milks, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, and tofu made with calcium sulfate

Vitamin D.5 This important vitamin helps the body to increase calcium absorption from food and to deposit calcium into the bones. Look at food labels for the percent daily value (%DV) of vitamin D—now included on the Nutrition Facts panel.

  • Recommended daily amounts: 600 IU for teens and adults under 70 years of age
  • Good sources: fatty fish (such as salmon or tuna); raw white mushrooms that have been exposed to UV light; and vitamin D-fortified orange juice, cereals, and milk

Teen Meal Diary

Here’s how a teen can get 1300 mg of calcium and 600 IU of vitamin D in a day.4, 5

Breakfast Calcium
per serving (mg)
Vitamin D
per serving (IU)
Breakfast cereal, fortified w/10% DV for calcium & vitamin D,
1 serving
130 80
Milk, 2% milkfat, vitamin D fortified,
1 cup
293 120
Publix String Cheese Twists
(Mozzarella Cheddar Twist Stick),
1 piece
165 0
Lunch Calcium
per serving (mg)
Vitamin D
per serving (IU)
1/2 cup broccoli,6 cooked 31.2 0
Salmon (sockeye), cooked,
3 ounces
9 570
Mashed potatoes,7
1 cup
62.5 0
Dinner Calcium
per serving (mg)
Vitamin D
per serving (IU)
Barbecue Chicken Kabobs
over Cheesy Rice w/ Strawberry Bites
374 0
Snack Options Calcium
per serving (mg)
Vitamin D
per serving (IU)
Yogurt, fruit, low fat,
6 ounces
258 0

Iodine & zinc.8, 9, 10 These essential minerals support and regulate brain and nervous system development. Note that the body does not produce iodine, so it must be consumed.

  • Recommended daily amounts of iodine: 150 mcg for ages 14 and older
  • Good sources of iodine: seaweed, seafood, iodized salt, and eggs
  • Recommended daily amounts of zinc: 9 mg for teen females; 11 mg for teen males;
    8 mg for females ages 19 and older; 11 mg for males ages 19 and older
  • Good sources of zinc: shellfish such as oysters and crab, cashews, beef, and pumpkin seeds

Iron.11, 12 This nutrient is important for the rapid growth that occurs during adolescence. Females need more due to menstruation.

  • Recommended daily amounts: 15 mg for females ages 14–18; 11 mg for males ages
    14–18; 18 mg for females ages 19–50; 8 mg for males ages 19–50
  • Good sources of iron: spinach, beans, red meat, and iron-fortified cereals

Life Is Sweet (but Not Too Sweet or Caffeinated)

Sugar-sweetened beverages are a leading source of added sugars in the American diet.13 Popular sugary drinks may include energy drinks,14 coffee, fruit juices, sports drinks, and sweetened waters. Adolescents who frequently consume these beverages may spend more time with screen devices such as phones, computers, TV, and video games.

Approximately 75 percent of children, adolescents, and young adults in the US consume drinks with caffeine. Teens may choose energy or coffee beverages for a boost to get through a long night of studying, a busy day of school and sports, or a demanding work shift. Stimulants found in these drinks, when consumed in large amounts, may cause side effects such as anxiety, insomnia, dehydration, heart complications, and impaired calcium metabolism.15

Quick tip: Try replacing sugary drinks with water, unsweetened beverages, and no/low-fat options. Our Better Choice shelf tags can help you identify options with less sugar.

5 Snack Hacks

Snacks are staples in many teen routines. Smart snacks can boost energy between meals by providing essential vitamins and minerals. Try these tips:16

  1. Include nutrient-rich selections from all the food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, and dairy items.
  2. Skip the urge to snack while you are stressed, bored, or emotional. Instead, take a walk or grab some water.
  3. Mind your portions. Have single-serve options—such as hummus, yogurt, sliced fruits, and veggies—ready in advance.
  4. Plan your snacks for the day. Change them up with something new: Tropical Fruit with Yogurt.
  5. Look for Better Choice shelf tags while you shop.

Go Deep on Sleep

Did you know that only about 8% of American teenagers get the recommended 8–10 hours of sleep per night? What’s more, about 59% of teens have severe sleep deprivation, meaning that they sleep an average of 6 hours or less most school nights.17 A lack of sleep may contribute to moodiness and irritability, lower academic performance, and higher risk for obesity and depression.1

Make sleep a priority! Getting enough sleep is essential to doing well in school, driving safely, and fighting off infections and illnesses.1

Quick tip: Develop a healthy sleep routine. Be sure to turn off screens one hour before bedtime. It’s best to avoid having electronic devices in the bedroom.17

5 Healthy Habits for Life

Parents and guardians can lead by example in helping their teens develop positive lifelong habits. Here are some ideas to put into practice:1

  1. Encourage daily physical activity. Exercise doesn’t have to be high intensity—taking walks through the neighborhood or mowing the lawn can help manage weight and build strong muscles and bones.
  2. Eat dinner as a family. This time together helps teens make better choices about the foods they eat, promotes healthy weight, and gives everyone a chance to talk and catch up.
  3. Keep portions in control by reading labels to be aware of serving sizes. When eating out, bring home leftovers instead of eating multiple servings on one plate.
  4. Limit foods such as cake and cookies, frozen desserts, chips, and fries, which are often high in added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium.
  5. Don’t skip meals! Start each day with a balanced breakfast.

For the Love of You

Choosing how you eat is uniquely personal. It’s about your needs, your preferences, and your goals. As your wellness ally, we’re in your corner with fresh ideas, recipes, and wellness icons that make it easier to shift toward wiser food choices. It’s all about you, at your very best.


1 National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDKD). Take Charge of Your Health: A Guide for Teenagers. US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). December 2016.

2 Lyle, Barbara, PhD. Nutrition to Support Optimal Growth and Development in Youth. Kerry Health and Nutrition Institute. February 21, 2020.

3 US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). Appendix 7. Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations. 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 8th ed. November 21, 2016.

4 Office of Dietary Supplements. Calcium Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). March 26, 2020.

5 Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin D Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). March 24, 2020.

6 Agricultural Research Service. Broccoli, Cooked, Boiled, Drained, Without Salt. FoodData Central. April 1, 2019.

7 Agricultural Research Service. Potato, Mashed, NFS. FoodData Central. April 1, 2020.

8 Office of Dietary Supplements. Iodine Fact Sheet for Consumers. US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). May 1, 2020.

9 Office of Dietary Supplements. Zinc Fact Sheet for Consumers. US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). December 10, 2019.

10 Zelman, Kathleen, MPH, RD, LD. Iodine, a Critically Important Nutrient. July 31, 2019.

11 Office of Dietary Supplements. Iron Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). February 28, 2020.

12 Kohn, Jill, MS, RDN, LDN. Iron. December 14, 2017.

13 Get the Facts: Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Consumption. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). February 27, 2017.

14 The Buzz on Energy Drinks. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). May 29, 2019.

15 Weisenberger, Jill, MS, RDN, CDE, FAND. Is Your Kid Over Caffeinated? October 25, 2018.

16 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Smart Snacking for Adults and Teens. Accessed August 7, 2020.

17 Garey, Juliann. How to Help Teenagers Get More Sleep. Child Mind Institute. Accessed August 7, 2020.