Sugar and spice, and everything nice – that’s what little girls are made of. “Snips and snails and puppy dog tails, that’s what little boys are made of.” While it’s true that boys and girls may differ in many ways, their nutritional needs may not be so different – until puberty strikes.
For the most part, energy and protein needs for girls are very similar to boys. Both genders aged 11-14 require approximately 2200-2500 calories per day, depending on activity level. Very athletic boys and girls may require even more calories. Protein requirements are about 10-15% of total calories, or 45-60 grams per day.
Once puberty strikes (beginning between the ages of 8-13 for girls and 9-14 for boys), nutrient needs for girls do change a bit. The teenage years can be particularly challenging as girls may alter their eating habits based on their peers’ choices, dieting habits and individual preferences. The following nutrients require some attention for growing girls.
- Calcium. The calcium requirement for teenage boys and girls is 1200 mg per day. Ideally, both groups should consume 3 servings from the milk group daily. Calcium intake is crucial at this age for normal bone development and prevention of osteoporosis later in life. Good sources include milk, yogurt, low-fat cheese, calcium-fortified juice and dark green, leafy vegetables. Soft drinks should be discouraged as they often replace milk in adolescents’ diets. In addition, excessive soft drink consumption may lead to weight gain and obesity.
- Iron. Adolescent girls need 15 mg of iron per day, while boys only require 12 mg. With the onset of menstruation in teenage girls, iron deficiency can be quite common. Iron deficiency can lead to anemia, altered immunity, impaired learning and weakness. Foods high in iron include red meat, poultry, pork, fish and fortified breads and cereals. Black strap molasses, dried beans and dried fruit also contain some iron.
- Folate. Folate is a B vitamin needed to make all new cells and aids in DNA synthesis. It is especially important to prevent spina bifida and other neural tube defects in the early stages of pregnancy. Folate needs are slightly higher in adolescent girls than boys (100 micrograms for boys, 150 micrograms for girls). Folate is not hard to obtain in the diet as most fruits and vegetables are good sources. Dried beans, nuts and fortified breads and cereals also contain folate.
- Zinc. Zinc is a mineral necessary for normal sexual maturation, taste acuity and immunity. It also aids in carbohydrate, fat and protein metabolism and is needed for wound healing. Though zinc deficiency is rare, it can occur with excessive dieting. Zinc needs for girls are 12 mg per day, while boys require 15 mg. Good sources of zinc include meat, fish, poultry, whole grains, nuts, seeds and seafood.
While dieting is not recommended in this population, girls do need to pay attention to excess calories from sugar and fat in their diet. The rate of type 2 diabetes is on the rise in adolescents, especially in African American females. Choosing a variety of foods from the food pyramid and encouraging regular exercise is the best way to promote and maintain appropriate growth, while preventing excess weight gain in girls.