December 4, 2022/Children's Health

Diets and Supplements for Teens: What’s Dangerous and What’s Healthy

Steer clear of restrictive trends and supplements; encourage a healthy diet and exercise

Image of supplements in pill and powder form

As your teen is continuing to learn about the world around them, they’re also learning about their body. And it’s normal for them to start asking questions about weight, diet and muscle building.

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“Weight gain and weight loss are often at the top of the list of questions teens ask when they come to see me,” says adolescent medicine specialist Ellen Rome, MD, MPH. “They are often confused about a healthy path to weight loss or weight gain.”

Dr. Rome shares some advice for teens — and parents or caregivers wondering how to talk to them about reaching or maintaining a healthy weight.

Weight loss dangers

Both boys and girls ask me about this, and I tell them that ‘diet’ is a four-letter word,” says Dr. Rome. “Young people who ‘diet,’ or restrict their food intake relative to their body’s needs, end up gaining more weight over time so that their body can live through the next ‘famine.’”

Prolonged restriction can lead your body to try to “store up nuts for the winter” — or reach a point that’s higher than your weight set point needs to be — in order to survive future times of relative starvation.

“We also now have a subset of teens with a disorder that some people call orthorexia, or addiction to overly healthy eating,” says Dr. Rome.

Unhealthy diets

Whether it’s from social media channels or their peers at school, teens may become exposed to different diet trends. It’s one thing if your child is interested in changing their food intake, but it’s important to keep an eye out for any restrictive eating habits they may try.

“Healthy eating takes on a new, potentially dangerous meaning when it deprives young brains and bodies of needed fuel or energy,” cautions Dr. Rome. “Food fads — such as fat-avoidant, protein-but-no-carbs, and other trends — can actually be unhealthy for the developing brain and bones.”

Importance of healthy fats and carbohydrates

Your teen may also be getting messaging that says anything related to “fat” is bad for their health. In reality, a healthy amount of fat is necessary for them to develop.

“Kids often don’t realize that fats are no longer the enemy,” says Dr. Rome. “Since their brains are still developing into their teen years, they need 50 to 90 grams of fat per day from birth through age 26 years.” This dietary fat is essential for myelination of the brain, or developing new neural pathways.

The body uses carbohydrates in important ways, too. “Avoiding carbs may be lifesaving for a person with diabetes who can’t maintain normal glucose levels when carb-loading. But that’s not a useful meal plan for a growing teen,” notes Dr. Rome.

Generally, teens need about 130 grams of carbs each day, or about 55% of their total caloric intake. Carbohydrate intake is especially important directly after intense workouts or exercises. In order to build glycogen, the kind of energy you need for endurance, teens should consume carbs (in liquid or food form) within the first 20 minutes after finishing a workout that’s 90 minutes or longer.

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“Without those carbs, you cannot build glycogen,” explains Dr. Rome.

Weight gain risks

On the other end of the spectrum, teens can also become fixated with putting on weight or muscle. Especially if you have a young athlete looking forward to volleyball tryouts or state championships, they may be looking for ways to build up their strength.

Protein powders

“Kids who are underweight struggle with how to put on pounds,” says Dr. Rome. “Some of them use protein powders, but they’re not a good option, and can even be dangerous if they are used when you’re dehydrated — say during or after a hard workout.”

That’s because protein powders can cross the blood-brain barrier at faster rates than water. These proteins can then cause mini-clots in the brain, which can lead to a series of mini-strokes.

Help your teen play it safe by ensuring they’re staying hydrated when they work out and meeting their protein intake goals in a different way than protein powders (more on that below).

Muscle-building supplements

Another supplement that’s become appealing to teens is creatine — a muscle-building supplement used by many athletes. But there isn’t enough research on the effects of creatine on people under 18.

“It draws water out of the muscles to make bodybuilders look big and strong,” points out Dr. Rome. “But creatine can be a challenge for the kidneys.”

It’s best for teens to avoid this supplement entirely.

How teens can safely reach a healthy weight

“The best thing to do is partner with your pediatrician and a registered dietitian to figure out a healthy eating plan that will work for your pocketbook and your teen,” states Dr. Rome.

Keep a balanced diet

While you don’t want your teen to try unhealthy food fads, you can still have a conversation with them about what a healthy diet looks like. Try introducing more balanced meal plans into their routine, as can be found in the Mediterranean diet. Model healthy eating by planning nutritious family meals that you prepare and eat together — and talk about what you’re including in the meal and why.

If your teen is looking to increase their protein intake, a well-balanced diet matches up with that perfectly. Try including foods in their diet like:

  • Chicken.
  • Turkey.
  • Lean beef.
  • Fish.
  • Eggs.
  • Tofu.
  • Dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt).
  • Beans.
  • Lentils.
  • Nuts.

The amount of protein that teens need will depend on factors like their weight and development. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends between 46 and 52 grams of protein per day for teens. According to Dr. Rome, teen athletes and those trying to increase their muscle mass should aim for up to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight.

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Cut out sugar and soda

Another easy way for your teen to create a small but meaningful adjustment in their diet is to cut out soda. It’s no secret that sweet drinks and soda contribute to a lot of health problems.

Various studies show soda is related to decreased energy and weight gain in teens and adolescents. In other words, cutting down on the soda pop is one of the easiest ways for your teen to improve their health.

More exercise

Even if your child isn’t a fan of sports, there are plenty of ways to incorporate more movement into their routine. Studies show that even a slight increase in daily physical activity can help boost muscle mass and, in turn, burn calories.

There are plenty of exercises to start out with, like yoga, running or cycling. These are activities that your teen can do in a group, through an extracurricular club or even on their own.

Healthy muscle building

If your teen is looking for additional ways to build up muscle, there are safer alternatives than protein powders and restrictive diets.

Teens looking for a protein boost can try over-the-counter nutrition shakes like:

  • Ensure® Plus.
  • Boost® Plus.
  • Boost® VHC.

“These provide more energy than juice boxes and work more safely than protein powders,” says Dr. Rome.

Even certain food sources can work, too. Homemade shakes are good alternatives, especially if you include ingredients like:

  • Peanut butter.
  • Yogurt.
  • Ice cream.
  • Bananas.
  • Berries.

“These may end up being less expensive while still providing great energy,” she adds.

If your teen is taking an interest in their health, it’s a perfect opportunity for them to start healthy eating and exercise habits that they can continue their whole lives. But restrictive dieting and unhealthy supplements can be tempting, so it’s important to pay attention to what they’re trying and to discuss the dangers of these trends.

Whether they’re interested in building strength, metabolism or energy, there are healthy options available. Keep an open conversation going between your teen — and your child’s pediatrician or dietitian — to ensure they’re making healthy choices.

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