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  • Denise Scott

Nutrition for a Healthy Puberty

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

Puberty - that word triggers an emotional response and anxiety in parents! Something we don’t like to think about when our little ones are still sweet and innocent! Despite their angst, parents have survived their children’s puberty for centuries.

Group of Young Teenage Friends

This article is to help you prepare your child nutritionally for the demands on their bodies as they begin changes that eventually lead to adulthood. Establishing these eating habits before puberty will make it easier to continue them through this period.

Nutrition is one of the most significant factors that affect pubertal development. For girls, a certain amount of body fat has to be present for hormones to be made. A significantly underweight child may have delays in the onset or progression of puberty; a substantially overweight female may experience puberty early. Eating disorders and chronic diseases that cause significant weight loss often lead to delayed puberty. Macronutrient and micronutrient needs are increased for growth acceleration. These include calories, protein, iron, calcium, zinc, vitamin D, B12, and folate.

Depiction of young child growing rapidly

Linear growth, or growth in height, accelerates rapidly in puberty; weight increases significantly, primarily in lean tissue. Height increases by about 25% -50% over prepubertal rates.

In general, total caloric needs are as follows - the more active the child, the more calories needed.

Ages Females Males

9-13 1400 - 2200 calories 1600 - 2600 calories

14-18 1800 - 2400 calories 2000 - 3200 calories

Depending on the activity level, those aged 12 to 18 require about 13 to 27 calories per pound of body weight.

Malnutrition during puberty, whether due to a lack of calories, a poor quality diet, an eating disorder, or chronic disease, can lead to impaired growth, thinning of bones or osteopenia, anemia, and vitamin or mineral deficiencies.

Eating a well-rounded diet, avoiding foods with saturated fats and added sugar (food and drinks), and limiting salt are all helpful.

Have your prepubertal and pubertal child aim for the following daily:

Vegetables - 3 cups

Fruit - 2 cups

Whole grains - 5-6 servings (this includes bread, pasta, cereal, rice, and tortillas - see post from 12/28/22 for healthy options)

Dairy - 3 cups

Protein - 5 ounces

Try to include at least three food groups with each meal and incorporate a fruit or vegetable and protein for snacks.

Adequate calcium is critical for building bone mass and preventing later osteoporosis. This is why 3 cups of dairy are needed. Unfortunately, this is also a time when girls often stop drinking milk.

Children ages 10-18 need 1300-1500 mg of calcium and 600-800 IU of vitamin D daily.

This is hard to attain if they don’t drink milk or eat dairy. In this situation, a supplement is very beneficial. Also, those who are vegetarian or vegan likely need to be supplemented. Some supplements, like Viactiv, contain calcium and vitamin D, and are chewable. A multivitamin does not have enough calcium, so a separate calcium supplement is needed.

Foods Rich in Calcium and Vitamin D

Foods other than milk and dairy that are high in calcium include:

  • Soy products - soybeans, tofu, tempeh, yogurt

  • Calcium-fortified orange juice and calcium-fortified plant milk

  • Salmon, sardines

  • Oatmeal

  • Blackstrap molasses

  • Tahini

  • Almonds and almond butter

  • Kale Bok choy Okra Broccoli

  • Collard greens Turnip greens Mustard greens

  • Navy beans Chickpeas

  • Oranges Dried figs Papaya

Foods with vitamin D:

  • Mushrooms - the only naturally occurring plant source of vitamin D

  • Cod liver oil.

  • Rainbow trout, Salmon, Tuna

  • Fortified cereals

  • Fortified soy products

  • Fortified plant milk and orange juice

  • Egg yolks

If you do supplement, be sure to get vitamin D3 rather than D2. Calcium carbonate supplements have more elemental calcium than calcium citrate.

Iron needs increase at menstruation due to monthly blood loss. Males need more iron for their increase in lean body mass.

Ages 9-13 need 8 mg of iron daily (boys and girls).

This need increases at ages 14-18 to 11 mg for boys and 15 mg for girls.

This mineral is hard to get in adequate amounts from the diet, so usually, a supplement is in order, especially once girls start menstruating. A multivitamin with iron is beneficial.

Keep in mind that gummy vitamins do not contain iron. If your child eats a well-rounded diet, iron alone may be enough.

Iron-rich foods:

  • Red meat, pork, poultry, and organ meats

  • Seafood

  • Beans

  • Dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach

  • Dried fruit, such as raisins and apricots

  • Iron-fortified cereals, bread, and pasta

  • Peas

  • Lentils

Folate should be given to young women once they are of child-bearing age at 400 micrograms daily. It is hard to get enough in the diet, but this is included in a multivitamin.

Omega-3 Rich Foods for Brain Health

Omega-3 fatty acids are more and more being found to benefit the brain, especially that of an adolescent. These are best obtained from seafood such as fatty fish. Additional sources include flaxseeds, chia and hemp seeds, walnuts, soy products, seaweed, and kidney beans.

A diet rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, and legumes, will provide adequate vitamins, including A and B vitamins. Other micronutrients, as discussed above, may need supplementation.

A balanced healthy diet during all phases of growth (infancy, childhood, and puberty) are necessary for optimal growth and normal pubertal development.

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