I have been working with a lot of teen athletes for a while now and I wanted to provide a few general tips on how I look at helping teens with their nutrition.
First, a bit of background on how I define athlete and how I see nutrition:
Any teen that is active and probably has goals in their athletic ability is an athlete. You do not need to be a certain size, body fat percentage, or workout in a certain way to be an athlete.
The way I approach nutrition is that food is fuel. We eat to help our bodies and brain feel good and function well for the life that we want.
Food has no moral value, there are no “good foods and bad foods” and I never encourage kids to diet and lose weight to be smaller or look a certain way. I will only talk about food for kids in terms of helping teens do the things they want to do in school, sports, and life. (For more about not moralizing food choices, see Robb Wolf’s book, Wired to Eat.)
Given that, here are some tips to helping teen athletes with their nutrition:
Don’t have your child count their calories.Counting calories can lead to eating disorders and we want to be very careful with our kids. I rarely let a teen log their food into a system that also puts the caloric values on the food and/or gives calorie recommendations.
If your teen is going to log their food, they can write it down or take photos of their food.
The point in logging food would be for them to also note how the felt during training, school, and life and see if there are any links between how they ate and how they function.
Log hours of sleep and hours of training and any injuries as well because not enough sleep and not enough recovery (or too little training) can also lead to poor performance. You want teens to learn that many things affect how you feel and perform, not just food.
You can mention to them what you are observing about what they ate and how they feel/perform, as long as you never moralize food choices or their performance! Teens may say that they can eat whatever and they don’t feel or perform any differently and that their injuries are unrelated to lifestyle. However, you will notice that on a day they ate pizza and pop the night before, they are tired and sluggish during training, workouts that are normally easy for them seem hard, they have a hard time concentrating on school work, or they may have stomach pains or other physical issues. Here is an example of what you could say: “I noticed that today your two mile run was really hard for you and you got side cramps and a stomach ache. This has happened a few times the day after you went out to the movies and got popcorn, pizza, and pop. Maybe we can remember that and see if eating something a little different the day before a long practice might make you feel a little better.” Never say; “When you at all those bad foods, you performed badly. You can’t do that again.”
If your child seems to not have enough energy or keeps getting injured easily, you need to make sure they are eating enough. In order to do that, you (not your teen) can periodically log their food in a calorie app and just check and see if they are getting enough calories and a good mix of macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fats.) (To get responsible calorie targets for a teen, go to a doctor that specializes in sports.) Remember to take into account that teens keep growing and calorie needs will increase often.
Talk about food as fuel for what we want to do and how we want to feel mentally and physically. Don't promote the idea that there are good and bad foods. Remember, your kid could get equally sick with a stomach ache from fruit as another child could from pizza (every body is different.)
Guide them by helping with meals. While we want our teens to be independent and make all of their meals, their brain is not fully developed and they still need our guidance. Periodically make some meals for them, with the foods and portions you know they need to keep fueled. This way they have some sort of guidelines that they will model when they make their own meals.
Give teens a visual of how their plate might look for most meals. My general recommendation for nutrition that fuels your body is to eat half your plate full of veggies, a palm sized portion of meat, some nuts and seeds, some fruit and some healthy fat, little starch, and no sugar. Eat enough to give you energy for your workouts, school, and day, but not so much that you feel tired and sluggish. (See photo.)
Give them agency over their own body. When other people put constant restrictions on kids, negative behaviors often result. Teach your teens that their body is their own and they have a lot of agency in deciding how to live in their body. The way I do this with my son is to talk about biohacking. Biohacking is just making changes to your lifestyle to "hack" your body and feel as good as you can. Teens love to experiment with stuff and see what happens when we do one thing rather than another thing. This allows them to see cause and effect and they learn to make their own choices based on how they want to feel.
I hope this helps give you some ideas to help your teen athlete with nutrition. This post is for informational use only. As always, before changing anything with your teens diet, consult with your pediatrician first.
DISCLAIMER: Please remember that these are general guidelines that work for most people. All content here is for informational purposes only. I am a health and wellness coach, not a nutritionist, doctor, or dietician so none of this is to be considered medical advice or personalized advice on your situation or your child. As always, before changing anything with your teens diet, consult with your pediatrician first.