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Time to Start Good Habits

Youth gain more control over their food and drink choices as they grow, so adolescence is a great time to help youth build good habits they can take into adulthood. Some healthy eating tips are relevant for all adolescents. For example, almost all adolescents could benefit from consuming less sugar. Many adolescents also could benefit from eating more vegetables, fruits, and dairy to meet recommended daily amounts.1

Other healthy eating tips are unique to certain groups of adolescents. For example, adolescent girls tend to have lower levels of iron than adolescent boys, so they need to eat more foods rich in iron that are easily absorbed by the body. These foods include lean meats (e.g., pork tenderloin), poultry (e.g., chicken, turkey), and seafood. Legumes (beans and peas), dark-green vegetables (spinach), and foods enriched or fortified with iron (breads and ready-to-eat cereals) also are sources of iron.1 The My Plate Plan helps adolescents create a meal plan that’s right for them.

Access to Nutritious Foods

Even with an understanding of good nutrition, adolescents still can lack access to healthy food.2 Approximately 15 percent of people living in low-income urban or rural areas lack access to grocery stores.2 Cost can be another barrier to healthy food. For example, healthy eating can cost $1.50 more per day compared to an unhealthy diet.3

Impact of Unhealthy Eating 

Limited access to healthy food can be related to obesity and other diseases.2 Obesity is measured using body mass index (BMI), a ratio of weight to height. An adolescent is considered obese if their BMI is in the 95th percentile for their sex and age.4 In 2015-16, approximately one in five adolescents ages 12-19 were categorized as obese.5 Obesity can increase health risks for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic diseases.1 Among children and adolescents, obesity is most common among older Mexican-American children and black girls.1 Good nutrition among adolescents promotes health and can decrease BMI.


1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2015). Dietary Guidelines for Americans: 2015-2020. Retrieved from https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/resources/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf
2 Economic Research Service. (2009). Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences. Retrieved from https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/42711/12716_ap036_1_.pdf?v=0
3 Rao, M., Afshin, A., Singh, G., & Mozaffarian, D. (2013). Do healthier foods and diet patterns cost more than less healthy options? A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2013-004277.
4 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Defining Childhood Obesity: BMI for Children and Teens. Overweight & Obesity. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/childhood/defining.html
5 Hales, C., Carroll, M., Fryar, C., & Ogden, C. (2017). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth: United States, 2015-2016. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db288.pdf
Content created by Office of Population Affairs
Content last reviewed on July 30, 2019