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Pamela M. Peeke, MD, MPH

Pew Foundation Scholar in Nutrition and Metabolism
Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine
University of Maryland
Baltimore, MD

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Teenage girl sitting on the floor, studying, eating granola

Nutrition and Exercise Needs of Your Teen

Can you spot what's missing in your teen's lifestyle? Help her to make healthy choices when it comes to diet and exercise.

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Can you spot what's missing in your teen's lifestyle? Good nutrition and exercise top the list.

Consider that just 20 percent of high school girls are likely to have eaten five or more servings of fruits and vegetables in the past day, or to have drunk three or more glasses of milk a day. Or that despite major advances in women's sports since the passage of Title IX 30 years ago prohibited sex discrimination in any educational activity or program (including athletics), adolescent girls today are the least active segment of the American population. While 61 percent of male students have played on sports teams, just 50 percent of girls have. And while nearly three fourths of boys participate in activities that make them sweat and breathe hard for 20 or more minutes three or more days a week, just over half of girls do.

Yet both - good nutrition and exercise - are vital to your daughter's long-term health. Exercise, for instance, helps build and maintain healthy bones, muscles and joints, control weight and prevent or delay the development of high blood pressure. In fact, the amount of exercise a teenage girl gets between the ages of 12 and 18 is a critical factor in preventing hip fractures after menopause.

Good nutrition is also critical since a teenage girl grows faster during adolescence than at any other time in her life save for infancy. That requires a mountain of vitamins and minerals best found in food, as well as an average of 2,200 calories a day. But too often, teenage girls don't get enough of these crucial micronutrients. They're often deficient in calcium, for instance, because they dramatically cut back on the amount of milk they drink once they hit their teenage years. Yet almost half a woman's bone mass is formed during adolescence, and low intakes of calcium today may lead to osteoporosis tomorrow.

Girls also don't get enough iron. This is a problem because not only do they lose iron through menstruation, but since they may be dieting or not eating a varied diet, they don't get enough iron-rich foods like red meat. While the health risks are clear - anemia, for one - one study found that even a mild iron deficiency could result in lower test scores in math, one possible explanation for why teenage girls tend to do worse than boys in math.

That's why it's up to parents to provide a healthy diet for their daughters (and sons), one that includes at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day and three, eight-ounce glasses of milk.

To get your teen connected to good nutrition:

  • Make it easy. Keep nutritional snacks like cut-up fruit, pretzels, cheese sticks, individual yogurts and butter-free popcorn, on hand.
  • Nix the soft drinks. Don't even keep them in the house.
  • Get her in the kitchen. Put her in charge of some of the family's meals and grocery shopping so she learns how to prepare and enjoy healthful and nutritious food choices.
  • Set an example. Even if family dinners are rushed, they can still be nutritious. When you eat out, encourage her to choose healthy selections, like salads and stir-fried vegetables.

Tips To Get Your Daughter Moving

Whether it's on organized teams or through individual sports or exercise programs, the main message to your daughter should be to get out and move. Here's how:

  • Encourage her to try new, physically active activities, such as rock climbing, hiking, skiing or snowboarding.
  • Make exercise a family affair - find a physical activity everyone enjoys and do it together.
  • Give her a pedometer and challenge her to collect at least 11,000 to 12,000 steps a day (the amount recommended for adolescents). Once she hits that figure, challenge her to do more.
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