You have a teenager and half the time you don’t know what they’re eating. That’s because they are either eating out or at a friend’s house.
It’s a tricky time. But the truth is it’s an important time for them to get key nutrients they need.
Teenagers brains are still developing until 25 and bones grow until 30. Boys are still growing until 18 or 19, while girls tend to stop growing around 16.
Plenty of evidence points to teenagers needing to supplement their diet with one if not all of the following 6 supplements.
Let’s take a look to sort it all out.
1. Multivitamin with minerals
When kids are young, their nutrients needs are much less (expect for iron with infants). It’s not as difficult to meet their nutrition needs though food.
But after age 14, teens need the same if not more nutrients than adults do. Yet this is also a time eating habits take a turn for the worse.
Funny thing is younger kids are more likely to take a multivitamin with minerals than teens.
Studies show adolescents who consume multivitamins with minerals are more likely to meet their nutrient needs than those who don’t.
This is true for the population over 9 according to a 2017 study in Nutrients. Even in a group with diets with high odds of meeting their needs, 16% of dietary supplement (DS) non-users, 6.0% of DS users, and 0.9% of full spectrum multivitamin vitamin users (FSMV) were at risk for one or more nutrient deficiency.
And in those with poor diets, the risk of deficiency was 63% in DS non-users, 51% in DS users, and 29% in FSMV users.
Which supplement? Choose multivitamins with minerals that have 100% DV for many of them. Because their needs are so similar to adults, consider adult formulations. For girls, I like the One a Day Petites because they are smaller (you take two). Another option is to take multivitamins every other day, especially teens who eat a fairly balanced diet.
Most multivitamins lack enough magnesium to make a real difference, or don’t have any.
Magnesium is a cofactor for over 300 enzymes to help regulate many body functions including protein synthesis, blood glucose control and blood pressure regulation.
Most tweens are getting about half the magnesium they need but this jumps during the teen years. It’s estimated that 75% of boys 14-18 and 87% of girls are falling short on the recommended 410mg and 360mg respectfully.
A lack of magnesium may even affect teens behavior. According to 2015 study teens with the highest magnesium intakes, had the lowest risk of externalizing behavior problems.
Studies also show an inverse relationship between magnesium blood levels and ADHD.
That doesn’t mean adolescents should mega dose but ensuring they are meeting their needs makes sense.
Teens who don’t eat nuts regularly will have a hard time meeting their magnesium needs. Check the food list to be sure.
Which supplements? According to the Office of dietary supplements “magnesium in the asparate, citrate, lactate, and chloride forms is absorbed more completely and is more bioavailable than magnesium oxide and magnesium sulfate.” If your teen is taking a MVI every other day, try giving magnesium on the alternate days.
3. Omega-3 fatty acids
What you also won’t find in most multivitamins is omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA.
During adolescence the brain goes through a “brain remodel” between the ages of 12 and 25 of which DHA plays a key role.
In fact, DHA continues to increase in the brain during adolescence to reach about 15% of fatty acids. This increase occurs during an important time.
Emerging research shows a link between DHA status and depression and other psychiatric disorders, behavior/attention and learning.
Minimum recommended amounts are 250mg, DHA and EPA while 14-18 consume 1-3oz/week which is less than half of that: 47-141mg/day.
Which supplement? I like Ultimate Omega-3 Juniors from Nordic Naturals because the pills are smaller. Eventually they can move up to ones used for adults. Consider their diet, cut back when fish intake is high which can change from week to week.
For more details on food sources and benefits, see my mega post on DHA and EPA throughout the lifecycle.
4. Vitamin D
Like everyone else, teens are at risk for vitamin D deficiency. Multivitamins will have some vitamin D – the RDA or up to 1000 IU but check the label.
According to the 2011-2014 National Health and Examination Survey (NHANES), 4.8% of 12-to-19-year-old’s had vitamin D levels <12ng/ml and 22.7% between 12-19ng/ml.
What we know is that non-Hispanic blacks, Asians and Mexican Americans have significantly lower vitamin D levels than Non-Hispanic whites. Those who supplement are also are more likely to have higher vitamin D levels.
The best course of action is you suspect your teen is low in vitamin D is to get them tested. Because the levels recommended for maintenance of vitamin D are different than for getting levels up.
And if your teen is prone to depression, testing can help you identify if vitamin D is playing a role.
Although most will benefit from 1000-2000IU per day, a lot depends on their size, sun exposure and skin color. See my post on vitamin D for more details.
Vitamin D3 is great choice and can be found anywhere.
During growth phases iron is always a watch out because needs increase to support growth. Girls are at higher risk for iron deficiency because they menstruate but that doesn’t mean boys can’t have low iron.
What’s important is to check the Big 4 and symptoms. Diet, blood loss, high needs, and absorption.
Please check my article on ferritin for more details including the long list of symptoms including fatigue/low energy, mood issues, pale, decreased exercise performance, heart flutters, sensitivity to cold, headaches, and dizziness.
For example, a menstruating vegetarian athlete would have three out of four risk factors, making her high risk for low iron.
Any athlete should be careful. At the start of cross-country season teen runners were evaluated checking hemoglobin and ferritin. At the beginning of the season one out of 30 males had low iron (<12ng/ml) and 8 out of 20 females.
By the end of the 11-week season, four additional males had low iron and another female making it 17% and 45% respectfully.
Now that’s with very low iron. In fact, a ferritin above 40mcg/L is recommended for adult endurance athletes to optimize performance in adults. Research is lacking in the teen population.
So talk to your teen, take note of symptoms, and don’t hesitate to ask the doctor to check their iron.
Intermittent iron supplementation found beneficial in a Cochrane review, may be a great choice for your teen. In one study, weekly iron for 16 weeks of 60mg elemental iron (check labels) was enough to raise ferritin from 27.97 to 45.45 in adolescent girls.
Which supplement? Start with ferrous forms like ferrous sulfate with vitamin C. If your teen has trouble tolerating, try iron bisglycinate. Always have ferritin and blood levels checked when taking iron.
Calcium needs are high in teens, a time when 95% of adult bone mass is reached. Getting adequate calcium allows adolescents to deposit calcium in their bones.
Yet according to The National Osteoporosis Foundation, 0 out of 10 kids in this age range meet the 1300mg.
Taking large calcium supplements Is not recommended.
A good strategy is to first focus on diet. You can use the International Osteoporosis Foundation also has a calcium calculator and downloadable app.
Then fill in gaps with fortified foods like orange juice or calcium chews.
Of course, it’s not just calcium but physical activity and vitamin D that matter which you can read about here.
Read: Why Puberty is the Ideal Time to Invest in Bone Health
What a teen supplement plan looks like
Let’s look what a teens supplementation plan and execution looks like. You have Sarah who eats pretty well but doesn’t eat fish or nuts and also eats out with friends quite a bit. Although her mom has given her supplements before there was no real plan or consistency.
Her mom talks about the importance of her nutrient needs and why she thinks she needs to add consistent supplementation.
She starts her on multivitamin with minerals every other day. She takes magnesium and vitamin D on the alternate days. And fish oil every day as she doesn’t eat fish (though now she says she will try more).
She complains of heavy periods and gets checked and her ferritin is low at 12mcg/L. She takes 65mg elemental iron every other day.
When Sarah gets follow up ferritin levels, they now are just over 40, so she switches to weekly iron. She is eating fish sometimes so adjusts her fish oil depending on her fish intake.
And during the summer, when she gets more sun, she takes vitamin D twice a week only. She also gets some in her multivitamin.
James who is 14 starts on daily multivitamins, magnesium and omega-3s because his diet is pretty limited. As he gets older his diet improves and his parents move him to every other day regimen.
Buy pill containers
To get her daughter independent, Sarah’s mom buys one of those days of the week containers typically used for medication. Simply put the supplements in there and have your teen take them on their own.
Yeah, they’ll miss days but hopefully they’ll get into a routine of taking them. Periodically check in to see if anything needs change.
This also helps teens understand how their diet may be lacking. Sarah never thought much about nuts but knowing they have magnesium has encouraged her to start eating them.
Overall, dietary supplements can play an important role in helping teenagers fill in nutrition gaps.
Do you supplement your teen?
This is really helpful! However, what supplements would you recommend for a teen who cannot swallow pills? Are there any liquid or chewable supplements you would recommend?
Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD says
Not off hand. There are different chewable multivitamins with minerals for adults you could look into. Here is a good liquid fish oil https://www.amazon.com/Carlson-Omega-3s-Norwegian-Sustainably-Sourced/dp/B001LF39RO/
I wuld just look it up, I’m sure plenty of chewable options (vitamin D is also sold as liquid online).