Top 4 Nutrients for Teens from Dr. Kim Callaghan, ND

Posted by on March 19, 2020

Written by Dr. Kim Callaghan, ND, a naturoapthic doctor working in Bloor West Village.

Food can be easy, delicious, a fun social thing, a source of joy, and tradition. Nutrients are the bits and pieces that our bodies and brains use to build stuff, to move, to think, to feel. Food gives us those nutrients!

I see lots of teens in my naturopathic medical practice and it’s such an exciting time food-wise as they discover their own tastes, make their own choices, and learn how to choose and prepare their own food. Go teens!

When those food choices are full of great nutrition, teens’ health improves in a bunch of different ways, I’ve seen improvements in:

  • concentration and focus

  • school work, volunteer work, paid work

  • mood with decreases in anxiety and lifting of depressive symptoms, along with fewer ups and downs with mood

  • sleep and stamina for sports and academics

  • colds and flus, and hormonal changes

Great nutrition can help a body and brain participate in life to the fullest.

So without further ado, here are my top 4 nutrients needed for teens.


Almost everything is made from protein in the body. Protein chunks in the body are like the bricks of a house. Pieces of protein make up muscles, bones, skin, blood vessels, parts of the immune system, and messenger molecules like hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain. We use protein to repair things when they get broken and to carry around other nutrients as they travel through blood from place to place.

What does that look like in real life?

You’re dancing around the living room and you bash your leg on the coffee table. It swells up and a bruise forms. The body brings protein bits in the form of collagen to the injured site to patch it up and it should heal up in a few days. If there isn’t enough protein being eaten, that wound healing process takes much longer. 

The same is true for the immune system. Imagine your classmate coughs all over you and you inhale a bunch of viruses. The immune system tags the viruses with a bit of protein called an antibody. Then a white blood cell comes along and chomps up the tagged virus. Without enough protein, these processes slow way down and the person who breathed in the viruses is sicker for a longer period of time.

Protein also impacts our neurotransmitters. A low protein situation can create or exacerbate anxiety and depression. Increase the protein and symptoms can improve. In fact, the therapists I work with comment that their clients have made greater strides in therapy when they make healthier food choices.

How much protein do teens need?

Around 50 g  / day. More if the teen is active. That’s quite a lot of protein. Here is a list of protein foods and how much protein they contain. Per 100mg of food:

  • Beef steak 31 g

  • Chicken breast 32 g

  • Tuna 23 g

  • Salmon 24 g

  • Cod 20 g

  • Eggs 12.5 g

  • Cheddar cheese 25 mg

  • Yogurt 5 g

  • Cow’s milk 3 g

  • Red lentils 7.6 g

  • Chickpeas 8 g

  • Kidney beans 7 g

  • Tofu 8 g

  • Oatmeal 11 g

  • Almonds 21 g

  • Walnuts 14 g

(Good) Fats

Fats are important for a number of things for teens. Perhaps most important is the brain!

Teen’s brains are working overtime learning facts and social cues, growing and feeling, and also learning how to store, access, and put together all of the information they gather. It’s truly astounding how much a teen’s brain is doing all the time.

Fats are required for all of these processes and healthy fats create better outcomes. Researchers have found that saturated fats and trans fats – the fats found in junk food, processed food, and deep fried foods – are associated with trouble with cognition (learning), increased anxiety, increased depression, and trouble with concentration and focus. While, healthy fats like omega 3 and omega 6 fats are associated with better academic scores, improved learning, more focus and fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. Seems like the brain does best with great fat!

For teen girls, healthy fats are extra important. Saturated fats have been shown to increase how often girls get migraine headaches and they can contribute to worsened menstrual cramps. Choosing foods with healthy fats can improve migraines and ease cramps. Sounds good!

Skin is another important part of the body that needs healthy fats. Acne, psoriasis, and eczema all improve with healthier fat food choices and get worse with saturated and trans fats.

Here are some foods that provide healthy fats:

  • Fish

  • Coconut

  • Walnut 

  • Flax

  • Olive

  • Grass fed beef and chicken

  • Sesame 

  • Sunflower

  • Borage

  • Almonds

  • Avocado

When you are choosing oils – pick cold pressed seed and nut oils and keep them in the fridge. Do not heat them, but add them to salads, and sauces added to food after it is cooked.

Enjoy these foods as accents to veggies, protein, grains. 


Now here’s an important nutrient! We all know that calcium is important for bones and teeth, but, the body and brain use it for so much more! Did you know that muscles use calcium? And the brain? 

Teen bones extract calcium from the blood as bones strengthen and grow. This is the time to make sure there is enough calcium in the diet  to pack those bones full. 

And muscles? Each time muscles contract, they use calcium. So to build strength and to grow, muscles also need lots of calcium. Researchers have found that muscles are stronger and have more endurance when enough calcium, and vitamin D, are eaten. So, as teens are growing and their muscles are growing, they need lots of calcium. Don’t forget that the heart is a muscle, healthy hearts need enough calcium!

And, the brain! Each time a person has a thought or a feeling, the brain uses calcium to help send the message where it’s going. Without enough calcium, this process doesn’t work properly.  Low dietary calcium is associated with increased symptoms of anxiety. Enough calcium in the diet has been shown to help anxiety and depression and to help with sleep. 

So how much calcium does a teen need? 1300mg / day

  • Cow milk 300 mg / cup

  • Fortified rice, almond, soy, oat, cashew, coconut milk 300 mg / cup

  • Yogurt 330 mg / ¾ cup

  • Almonds 186 mg / ½ cup

  • Cheddar cheese 245 mg / 3 cm cube

  • Mozzarella cheese 200mg / 3 cm cube

  • Canned beans 130 mg / cup

  • Figs 150 mg / 10 

  • Tofu 130 mg / 3 oz

  • Chickpeas 77 mg / cup

  • Broccoli 33 mg / ½ cup

  • Edamame 52 mg / ½ cup

  • Parmesan cheese 70 mg / Tbsp

  • Wakame seaweed 150 mg / 100 mg serving

  • Sesame seeds 88 mg / Tbsp 


Iron is the molecule that holds onto oxygen in red blood cells. When the blood goes past the lungs, it dumps out the waste product, carbon dioxide, and picks up oxygen. Everything the body does requires oxygen. And that oxygen gets transported around on iron.

No iron? No oxygen. No oxygen? No energy. No energy? Nothing happens.

Symptoms of low iron are not very specific but can include: tiredness, trouble sleeping, feeling winded going up stairs, trouble thinking or concentrating, feeling cold, feeling low mood, feeling anxious, weakness, headaches, and/or dizziness.

Teen bodies and brains are very busy with growing and learning and changing. Iron requirements are high. 

Iron from animal sources is easier for our body to absorb than vegetarian sources. So, if you’re vegetarian or vegan, it’s worthwhile to talk to your ND or MD about supplementation.

Here are some iron rich foods:


  • Oysters

  • Beef

  • Tuna

  • Chicken

  • Pork

  • Shrimp

  • Salmon 

Vegetarian Options

  • Lentils Beans

  • Pumpkin seeds 

  • Blackstrap molasses

  • Refried beans

  • Edamame

  • Tahini

  • Swiss chard

  • Prunes 

  • Quinoa

  • Sunflower seeds

Teens, it’s clear, need lots of great food to power their bodies and brains and specific nutrients are especially important. Protein, healthy fats, calcium, and iron are all found in delicious foods. Food choices matter in our health and how we feel day to day. Enjoy a wide variety of great foods and your body will be strong and smart.

Happy eating!

Dr. Kim Callaghan

Dr. Kim Callaghan, ND is a naturoapthic doctor working in Bloor West Village. She has been practicing naturopathic medicine since graduating from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, here in Toronto, in 2001. Dr. Kim has a special focus on children’s health and women’s health and especially enjoys speaking with her teen and tween clients. Dr. Kim works to help empower patients to know about their bodies to make good choices and participate in life to the fullest.

In addition to her day to day practice, Dr. Kim lectures and writes about food, the body, herbs, health and natural remedies.

Dr. Kim participates on committees for the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine to help with the curriculum of the college. She is a member and presenter with the Naturopathic Doctors’ Obstetrics Group and a member in good standing with the provincial and federal associations, the OAND, and the CAND.

Dr. Kim has 2 children – a teen and a tween and in her spare time she enjoys knitting, skiing and laughing at goofy jokes.

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