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How many calories should I let my teen eat per day? The answer is complicated

Here are some handy tools to help you understand a teen's calorie intake

When children are young, parents are focused on their nutritional needs and ensuring they are growing, gaining weight, and hitting their physical milestones for their age. As kids get older and become teens, their nutritional needs change from what they were in the toddler, elementary, and tween years. Teens go through phases where they seem to never stop eating, leaving many parents to wonder how many calories they should let their teens eat per day.

Every teen is different, which means caloric needs are also different, so there’s no one answer as to many calories a teen should eat in a day. Diet culture and disordered eating are also things parents need to be aware of when discussing a teen’s diet, especially if obesity or weight is an issue. Helping teens focus on healthy eating habits is the key to ensuring they are eating enough calories a day, maintaining a healthy weight, and ensuring they are developing a good relationship with food.

Teenage girls eating pizza

How many calories should a teenager eat a day to lose weight?

There are many factors that can impact a teen’s weight, including diet, activity levels, and genetics. According to The Children’s Medical Group, 21% of teenagers in America are obese, and a sensible diet that focuses on gradual weight loss is the best method to ensure lasting weight loss success for teens.

How many calories a teen needs to eat depends on factors including activity level, whether the teen has hit puberty and the teen’s age. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, in general, boys require an average of 2,800 calories per day while girls require an average of 2,200 calories per day. The Children’s Medical Group notes that teens only need to limit their daily caloric intake by about 500 calories to see a weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds per week while those in puberty can reduce their calories by about half that and still see the same weight loss.

Teenage girl jogging

Is 1200 calories a day enough for a teenage girl?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics notes that girls between the ages of 11 and 13 need between 1,800 to 2,200 calories per day while those between the ages of 14 and 18 need 1,800 to 2,400 calories per day, so 1200 calories a day really isn’t enough for a teenage girl. Factors to also consider include whether the teenage girl is active in sports or other physical activities which would require even more calories per day.

Boys playing video games

How many calories should a 14-year-old eat?

While your teen’s activity level and physical build will determine whether more or fewer calories are needed daily, Fueling Teens writes that on average, 14-year-old teenage girls need around 2,000 calories per day while 14-year-old males need an average of 2,400 calories per day. Active teens may need even more calories each day, depending on their level of activity, while those who are taller with a larger build may also require more calories than a shorter and more slightly built peer.

Teens eating dinner with parents

Should teens count calories?

It can be difficult to be overweight or underweight as a teen, but focusing more on healthy eating versus counting calories is a better way to ensure your teen remains healthy. Katherine Harmer, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist writes at Fueling Teens that she doesn’t recommend teens count calories as it can lead to obsessively focusing too much on food and quantities. Instead, the focus should be on educating teens about making proper food choices, including portion sizes, and allowing them to develop a healthy relationship with food.

Feet weighing on scale

What are the signs of disordered eating?

Diet culture has a huge impact on teens and the Canadian Pediatric Society notes that about 1 in every 2 teenage girls and 1 in every 4 teenage boys have tried dieting to change the shape of their bodies, while more than 1 in 3 girls who are at a healthy weight still try to diet. Disordered eating is defined by WebMD as “psychological disorders that involve extreme disturbances in eating behavior.” Unfortunately, disordered eating is more common than parents may think, but there are some signs they can watch for, including:

  • Distorted body image
  • Skipping most meals
  • Unusual eating habits (such as eating thousands of calories at one meal or skipping meals)
  • Frequent weighing
  • Extreme weight change
  • Insomnia
  • Constipation
  • Skin rash or dry skin
  • Dental cavities
  • Erosion of tooth enamel
  • Loss of hair or nail quality
  • Hyperactivity and high interest in exercise

If you suspect your teen may have an eating disorder, talk openly about it and reassure your teen that you are there for support. If necessary contact your family doctor and know there are many treatments — both physical and mental — that can help.

The teenage years are the perfect time to teach kids about moderation and how to create balance in their diet. Educating them on the importance of eating well and staying active doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy fast food or junk food on occasion. Allowing them to understand how food helps to fuel their body and the importance of ensuring they are eating adequate calories every day can help them make their own educated decisions as they grow into adults.

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