A Diet Plan for Teens

Need a diet plan to help your teen make healthier choices when they eat?

Have your teenagers picked up some bad eating habits and put on a little extra weight during the pandemic?

A Diet Plan for Teens

To get them back on track, in addition to encouraging them to be more active, it might help to teach them some healthy eating habits.

So no, this isn’t about putting your teen on a diet…

It’s about a diet plan that can lead to a lifetime of healthy eating, an active lifestyle, and a healthy weight.

It’s a diet plan that:

  • focuses on eating and drinking a variety of nutrient dense vegetables, fruits, grains (half should be whole grains), dairy products (can include fortified plant based alternatives to cow milk), protein foods, and oils
  • advises we stick within calorie limits and avoid oversized portions
  • limits added sugars (should be less than 10% of calories per day), saturated fat (should be less than 10% of calories per day), and sodium intake (should be less than 2,300mg per day)
  • goes along with an hour of more of daily moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for an hour or more with a mix of aerobic, muscle training, and bone-strengthening activities

Sounds easy, right?

It’s actually not that hard.

A customized MyPlate Plan will help you find your child’s food group targets so that you will both know what and how much your child should eat to stay within their calorie allowance each day.

Sound too easy?

Well, maybe it is… After all, we often already have some idea of what we should and shouldn’t be eating, that we need to be more active, and if we are eating too many things unhealthy things.

The real trick is getting motivated to eat healthier and be more active!

Need some easy things to start your path to a healthier lifestyle?

  • avoid soda, fruit drinks, and other drinks with added sugar and little or no nutrition
  • get more exercise and physical activity than you have been, even if you start with just 15 minutes a day
  • eat smaller snacks and be more mindful of how many calories you are getting from your snacks
  • don’t skip meals
  • eat your meals at the table, avoiding mindless snacking while you are on a screen
  • decrease your screen time if you are frequently on a screen
  • avoid adding high-calorie, high-fat dressings and toppings to all of your food, some of which might have started out fairly healthy
  • eat more meals at home, which has likely gotten easier during the pandemic
  • take supplements if you aren’t confident that you are getting enough calcium, vitamin D, and iron from the foods you are eating each day
  • if you have been gaining too much weight, consider decreasing your portion sizes, as you are almost certainly getting too many calories each day

And then once you are on a healthier path, you can try to follow an age appropriate MyPlate Plan! Or if still need some reinforcement and more tips for healthy eating, read these articles:

And of course, your pediatrician and/or a registered dietician can also be a good source of help for your teen who needs a healthy eating plan.

More on Teen Healthy Eating Plan

Sugar and Added Sugar

Learn to avoid added sugar in your child’s diet as part of an overall healthy eating plan.

What do you think about when you think of sugar?

Candy and junk food?

It is important to remember that sugar is also naturally present in milk, including breastmilk and baby formula, and in fruits, and vegetables, etc.

That means that not all sugar is bad sugar.

Types of Sugar

Most of us have learned to limit or avoid certain types of sugar, like high fructose corn syrup, but you don’t have to avoid all sugar. In fact, if you eat fruits and vegetables, it would be awfully hard to avoid sugar.

You probably thought that sugar was sugar, right?

Nope.

There are many different types of sugar, with the most common types including:

  • glucose – found in many fruits and in corn syrup
  • fructose – fruit sugar
  • sucrose – sugar cane, sugar beets (a combination of glucose + fructose)
  • maltose – barley or malt sugar (a combination of two glucose molecules)
  • lactose – milk sugar (a combination of galactose + glucose)

Honey, a sweetener like sugar, is also made up of glucose and fructose, but they are not combined together. In general, honey contains much more fructose than glucose, which is why it is so sweet.

What about table sugar? That’s sucrose.

Still, like most other types of sugar, table sugar is broken down by enzymes in our body to glucose, with each gram of glucose providing four calories of energy. If you don’t need that energy at the time, that glucose gets converted into fat and is stored away.

Good Sugar vs Bad Sugar

While it’s become popular to worry about how bad sugar is for us, that’s not really what you should focus on. Instead,  learn more about the the differences between naturally occurring sugar and added sugars.

A large strawberry contains about 1 gram of natural sugar. They are low in sugar, unless you dip them in sugar before giving them to your kids.
A large strawberry contains about 1 gram of natural sugar. They are low in sugar, unless you dip them in sugar before giving them to your kids. Photo by Ken Hammond

If there is a bad sugar, it is the added sugars in foods that help us get too much sugar in our diets.

Also, when you eat or drink something with naturally occurring sugar, even though you are getting some sugar, you are also getting many other vitamins and minerals in your diet. For example, when you drink milk or eat an orange,  you get other nutritional benefits, unlike drinking a soda or eating a piece of candy.

So while you do get sugar from all of them, that’s all you get from the soda and candy.

That’s why it is often said that junk food is filled with empty calories.

Has someone got you shocked about the sugar content of your child’s lunch consisting of a PB&J sandwich, applesauce, and fruit punch? Then swap the applesauce for an apple and the fruit punch for low-fat milk or water.

Identifying Added Sugars

A new food label with added sugars is coming - by January 2020...
A new food label with added sugars is coming – by January 2020…

How do you know if the foods you are eating are high in sugar?

Just check the Nutrition Facts label and look at the amount of Sugars listed under Total Carbohydrates.

That can be misleading though, as it doesn’t differentiate between natural sugars and added sugars. At least not yet.

For that, we have to check the ingredients list and look for clues that the food item contains added sugars, including that it contains things like:

Hidden Sugar on Ingredients List
agave nectar invert sugar
anhydrous dextrose lactose
beet sugar malt syrup
brown sugar maltose
confectioner’s powdered sugar maple syrup
corn syrup molasses
corn syrup solids nectars (e.g., peach nectar, pear nectar)
dextrose pancake syrup
fructose raw sugar
fruit juice concentrate sucrose
high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) sugar
honey white granulated sugar

New rules from the FDA will hopefully soon make it easier to recognize added sugars on food labels, as they add information about the amounts of added sugars in foods.

Limiting Sugar in Your Diet

Although some people are concerned that sugar is an actual poison – it isn’t – the most common reason to avoid added sugar is to simply avoid extra calories.

Sugar itself doesn’t cause diabetes or ADHD or any number of other things it gets blamed for, except maybe getting cavities.

If you get too much sugar in your diet and you become overweight, then you could develop type II diabetes. Getting too much fat in your diet is also an easy way to become overweight though, especially if you don’t exercise everyday.

How much sugar is too much?

“Free sugars include monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates”

WHO on Sugars intake for adults and children

In general, you don’t usually want to get more than 10% of your daily calories from free sugars. Unfortunately, most people get too many calories in their diet, and too many of those calories are from free sugars.

Other recommendations are a little more restrictive.

“The committee found that it is reasonable to recommend that children consume ≤25 g (100 cal or ≈6 teaspoons) of added sugars per day and to avoid added sugars for children <2 years of age.”

AHA on Added Sugars and Cardiovascular Disease Risk in Children

But remember, this is the sugar that you get from candy, cakes, fruit drinks, donuts, and soft drinks, etc.

A teaspoonful of sugar is equal to 4g of sugar or 16 calories.
A teaspoonful of sugar is equal to 4g of sugar or 16 calories. Photo by Samantha Celera (CC BY-ND 2.0)

In general, it is not the sugar that they get from whole fruits, plain yogurt, or milk.

For example, don’t be mislead by scary claims, like yogurt might have more sugar than a Twinkie. Unless it is a kid’s brand, with a lot of added flavorings, the sugar in yogurt is mostly from naturally occurring milk sugar and sugar from added whole fruit, while a Twinkie is almost all added sugars.

Once you start being more mindful of how much sugar your kids are getting and you limit sugary drinks and candy every day, it becomes easy to get under about 25g of added sugar each day.

Avoiding Added Sugars

To help your kids avoid added sugar, it can help to:

  • drink water
  • limit or avoid soda, fruit drinks, and other sugar-sweetened drinks, including sports drinks
  • drink low-fat white milk without extra flavorings
  • avoid sugary cereals
  • choose canned fruits with water over syrup when not eating fresh whole fruit
  • limit candy, cakes, cookies, ice cream, and other junk foods
  • choose plain yogurt without added sugars instead of a flavored yogurt and then add fresh fruit to it

Even 100% fruit juice should be limited, and avoided all together if your infant is under 12 months old.

And don’t make the mistake of limiting added sugar, but then turning to high fat foods!

Healthier alternatives can include more nutrient dense foods, including beans and peas, eggs, fat-free and low-fat milk and cheese, fruits, lean meats and poultry, seafood, unsalted nuts and seeds, vegetables, and whole grain foods.

Most importantly, learn to read food labels to look for added sugar in the foods your kids eat and then avoid those food and watch their portion sizes. When you do allow your kids to have a treat, don’t go overboard with a 24 ounce soda or letting them eat a pint of ice cream.

Learn to eat healthy.

Remember that it’s not all about sugar, fat, carbs, or any other one thing. A registered dietician can be helpful if you need more help planning what your family eats.

What to Know About Sugar and Added Sugar

Learn to avoid added sugar in your child’s diet as part of an overall healthy eating plan.

More About Sugar and Added Sugar