Nutrition for children and adolescents has recently hit the headlines again after a Campbell Live Special (since dubbed ‘LunchBox-Gate’). The show pitted dietitian against dietitian in a debate over what really constitutes a ‘healthy’ lunch. For some, these differing opinions have caused even more confusion, leaving parents’ unsure of what to feed their kids.
Performance nutrition for teens can be an equally confusing topic. Much of this stems from the widely-held belief that adolescents simply ‘burn off’ excess calories. This under-values the role that diet has to play in the health of our ‘almost-adults’.
Much of the damage resulting from poor nutrition doesn’t have an obvious immediate effect, but can lead to a greater risk of metabolic disorders (metabolic syndrome and diabetes) and obesity in later life.
I was always fond of telling my elite high school and college athletes in North America that they could perform well in spite of a poor diet… but that they couldn’t do it for long. A poor diet in adolescence can lead to reduced performance later in an athlete’s career; causing increased inflammation and reduced ability to recover from stress or injury.
Quality of nutrition
There is a key aspect lacking in much of the advice given to young athletes: quality of nutrition. Priority is given to total fuel (simply eating more!) and pre, during and post-training fuelling. This often takes the form of sugary sports drinks and sugar-laden or highly processed foods. But if an athlete is eating quality, natural, whole and unprocessed food and plenty of it, we believe that they will not only get fuel they require, but also the essential, vitamins and minerals needed to reduce the potential for later metabolic damage.
By eating a diet focused on quality nutrition, we can help to ensure that athletes get all the essential and ‘secondary’ nutrients they need to support performance and long term health. USDA data suggests that in recent decades there has been a decline in the nutrient value of food crops and that we may need to eat twice the quantity of some foods to match the nutrients delivered in the 1950’s.
Food before supplements
US Data suggests that over a quarter of teens use some form of dietary supplement, with multi-vitamins being most common. This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, many athletes try to make up for a poor diet by taking supplements; or don’t pay enough attention to diet before trying to ‘boost’ performance with supplements. A multi-nutrient supplement can be beneficial (as an adjunct to a sound diet) to supply essential nutrients for performance growth and repair, but always ensure that it is a quality, trusted brand (such as NuZest’s Good Green Stuff).
Good Green Stuff bars are also a great option to encourage increased nutrient density in school lunch boxes or after-training packs.
Focus on quality, without the stress
Adolescents are at a higher risk of developing eating disorders. The pressures of performance and body-composition ideals associated with sport may make adolescent athletes even more at risk.
When we focus on quality of nutrition, without excessive restriction of calories, or obsession over food amounts, we can encourage our teens to form positive, lifelong relationships with food.
The take home message for teens is to eat natural, whole and unprocessed food and plenty of it, and stick to high quality supplements if required, rather than stimulant-containing pre-workouts or any ineffectual (and potentially damaging) ‘anabolic’ supplements.