3 Ways Teen Diets Could Be Falling Behind

5 min read
Learn why teen diets are among the worst in the US—and some easy ways to instill better habits.
Learn why teen diets are among the worst in the US—and some easy ways to instill better habits.

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On the road to adulthood, it makes sense that teens want to start making their own food choices—but unfortunately, that might mean eating healthy can fall to the wayside. To put it in more stark terms, teen diets are among the worst in the nation when it comes to things like eating enough fruits and vegetables, along with meeting daily nutrient needs in general.*

But teens and parents alike shouldn’t despair. Building better nutrition habits doesn’t necessarily require a major life overhaul—just taking a few small steps in the right direction can really add up. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the specific ways the average teen diet is falling short, and some easy suggestions that can make a difference.

Teens aren’t consuming enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

When it comes to nutrient intake, this is kind of the trifecta: Aiming for variety within fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is a great way to ensure you’re piling nutrition onto your plate. But teens are lagging on all three, according to national data.* (1)

→ Level up: Signing up for a local CSA or taking a trip to your local farmer’s market is a great way to get everyone excited about trying fresh, seasonal ingredients. On that note, try embracing family cooking nights where everyone gets a say in the menu and prepares it together. (Research suggests that we’re more enthusiastic about healthy options when we’re involved with the food prep ourselves.)* (2)

In a typical teen’s diet, nearly 40% of total calories consumed are commonly coming from less nutritious foods.

Want specifics? A lot of this 40% figure is coming from five foods in particular: soda, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, grain desserts, and pizza. That’s a big percentage of daily calories going to foods that don’t offer much nutritional bang for their buck.* (3)

→ Level up: Completely overhauling our diets can be a tall order, especially when considering factors like budget, convenience, and food preferences—but might we suggest just making some small nutritious swaps? This freezer fudge recipe features nutrient-rich ingredients and enough flavor to satisfy any sweet tooth. See also: These dietitian-recommended snacks for just about every craving.

As a result, teens are commonly falling short on certain key nutrients.

To be clear, even those of us who consider ourselves healthy eaters can be vulnerable to nutrient gaps—so when we’re not enjoying a balanced diet of nutrient-rich foods to begin with, that may lead to an even bigger issue. Case in point: There are a handful of nutrients that many teens simply aren’t consuming enough of, sometimes at a substantial margin. Let’s dig into a few examples. (4)

Vitamin D. We need this nutrient to help support normal immune and muscle function, but it can be tricky for most of us to get enough of it through food alone—in fact, 97% of teenage girls and 92% of teenage boys are falling short. On top of that, sunlight isn’t always a reliable source either, which is why supplementing might be the way to go.* (4)

Magnesium. Magnesium is essential for supporting bone and heart health, and works alongside Vitamin D to help support normal muscle function. But while it’s found in certain foods (leafy greens, avocados, dark chocolate), we need a lot of it to meet our daily levels—and many teens simply aren’t getting enough. 78% of teenage boys and 89% of teenage girls are not getting enough magnesium from their diets.* (4)

Vitamin E. This antioxidant also helps support normal immune function—something we can all get behind. But teens are falling behind on this one, too: 95% of teenage girls and 88% of teenage boys, to be exact.* (4)

Omega-3 fatty acids. Less than 5% of all teens are getting their fill of key omega-3s†—a big no-no, since these healthy fats are kind of a big deal when it comes to helping support heart and brain health.* (4)

Key Omega-3s = DHA+EPA. There is no established Daily Value but experts suggest 250 mg per day of DHA+EPA.

→ Level Up: Make no mistake—when it comes to meeting daily nutrient needs, food comes first. But even if we’re ticking all those boxes when it comes to eating a nutritious, balanced diet, some of us can still be vulnerable to gaps—due to factors like genetics, dietary restrictions, and more. Either way, a quality multivitamin can help bridge some of those common nutrient gaps. Pro tip: Choose one that’s formulated with teens’ specific nutrient needs in mind, like Essential for Teens (Hers) and Essential for Teens (His).*


  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015.
  2. Reedy J, Krebs-Smith SM. Dietary sources of energy, solid fats, and added sugars among children and adolescents in the United States. J Am Diet Assoc. 2010;110(10):1477-1484.
  3. Horst, K. V. (2012). Overcoming picky eating.... Appetite, 58(2), 567-574. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2011.12.019
  4. USDA, Agricultural Research Service. Usual Nutrient Intake from Food and Beverages, by Gender and Age, What We Eat in America, NHANES 2013-2016. 2019.


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