According to the Centers for Disease Control, adolescent obesity increased from 5 to 18.1 percent between 1976 to 2008. Teenage girls are particularly sensitive to their weight and suffer psychological as well as health consequences from being overweight. Some teenage girls of normal weight develop disordered eating habits such as skipping meals, starving themselves or binging in an effort to become this. A healthy diet for a teenage girl looks much like that for an adult, but because she is still growing, nutritional balance and establishing good habits are even more important.
Health Consequences of Poor Eating Habits
Teenage girls need to take in an appropriate number of calories, neither too many or too few, to provide energy for their daily activities, to obtain important vitamins and nutrients, maximize height potential, and maintain a healthy weight. Being obese in adolescence potentially results in a lifetime of health problems. Overweight teenagers often develop early onset of chronic conditions such as heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, asthma and sleep apnea. The Centers for Disease Control also point out that being overweight can undermine a youth’s self esteem, setting them up for poor academic and social performance.
At the other extreme, teenage girls who starve themselves or binge and purge do not eat enough calories and risk nutritional deficiencies resulting in anemia, irregular menses and poor bone development.
A Healthy Diet
A healthy diet for a teenage girl features a balance of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Do not shy away from healthy fats, like those found in nuts, olive oil and avocados; obtaining about 25 to 35 percent of your daily calories from these sources helps with vitamin absorption, healthy skin and hair and hormone regulation. Carbohydrates, like whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables, provide energy and nutrition. Because they digest slowly, eating about 50 to 60 percent of your daily calories from these good sources will keep you from getting too hungry during the day. Calcium, available in low fat dairy such as milk, cottage cheese and yogurt and in dark green vegetables, is especially important to support growing bones and prevent weak bones later in life.
Types of Foods to Include
Giving girls the tools to make healthy choices can help them manage their weight and gradually lose pounds; or perhaps prevent them from developing unnatural eating habits that can explode into a full-blown eating disorder. Teenage girls are more likely to skip meals because they are self consciousness eating in front of other people or because they believe it will help them lose weight.
Strive to eat breakfast every day because it fuels your morning and prevents overeating later in the day. Choose whole wheat toast with peanut butter or pour a bowl of whole grain cereal with low fat milk. If you run out the door, grab a low-fat string cheese and a banana, or blend an all-fruit smoothie to pour into a to-go cup.
At the lunch line, your choices might be limited but skip the fries and burger or pizza and go for a grilled chicken sandwich with a baked potato instead. Better yet, bring your own lunch that might include a turkey sandwich on whole wheat, yogurt and fresh fruit. Snack on fruit, small servings of trail mix, air-popped popcorn, or 200 calorie energy bars. Experiment with foods like cut-up vegetables and hummus.
At dinner, a teenage girl can help plan and prepare the meal. Whole grain pasta with marinara and a side salad can be made by the most novice of cooks.
Foods to Avoid
Teenage girls should, as should everyone, limit processed and fast foods to help keep calories in check. Cut back on empty calories first, those found in soda and sweets, to help reduce calories, without sacrificing nutrition. Significantly reduce intake of saturated fats, those found in fatty cuts of meat (like fast food burgers and bacon) and cheese (like that on nachos) and butter. Try to eliminate trans fats altogether, this man-made fat is found in processed baked goods, snack crackers and many fried foods.
Let your teenager go shopping with you and choose products without “partially hydrogenated” oils in the ingredient list. Limit intake of refined carbohydrates though as well, like snack crackers, chips, muffins and cookies and white bread, because these offer limited nutrition and spike blood sugar.
Too much weight loss too fast can interfere with growth. Do not fall for fad diet claims and indulge in diet pills; these strategies are likely to fail and may be dangerous for still-growing youth. Labeling foods as “off-limits” can backfire and lead to bingeing or secretive eating. Learning to include all foods, but in moderation, helps a teenage girl successfully manage her weight. Keep teenagers active, for at least an hour a day.