The energy needs of active teens are often much higher than your own. When it comes to feeding your son or daughter, it might be time to re-think the rule book when it comes to how much food is ‘healthy’, says sports dietitian Kristen MacKenzie.
If your teen exercises more than four times a week (such as participating in an organised sport that consists of at least an hour of vigorous exercise), their nutritional and energy requirements are going to be quite different to yours. Between learning, socialising, growing and intensive sports training, it’s no wonder that your teenage son or daughter can drain the contents of the fridge in one go. While they require the same healthy foods you do, the portion sizes and the frequency of meals may differ from yours. Luckily, getting the balance right isn’t as tricky as you might think.
Is my teenager eating well?
Teenagers are renowned for wanting to flex their independence in every area of their life – including in their food choices. Lots of activity and the possibility of peer pressure to look a certain way may mean your teen is at risk of making poor food choices. Nutrients they might not be getting enough of include carbohydrates, protein, calcium, iron and essential fatty acids. With only around one-quarter to one-third of young people in Australia reporting that they consume adequate fruit, vegetables and dairy foods, your teen may be at risk of being deficient in key vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
What should I be feeding them?
For a highly active teenager, meeting daily energy and nutrient requirements can be very difficult. Here are some easy ideas for getting enough good-for-you food into their day:
Does your teenager get home after school and want to eat anything and everything within reach? If so, chances are they haven’t eaten enough throughout the day. A filling breakfast is the best way to start the day. Aim to include a dairy product, fruit product and bread or cereal. If you are rushed, then fruit, juice, toast, cereal or cereal bars, yoghurt and milk drinks are good options. If your teenager doesn’t like eating a big brekky, or if they have sport or training before school, split breakfast into two smaller meals.
Lunch and dinner
One of the most common challenges is making sure active teens have enough food in their school lunch. To ensure that your teenager’s nutrient needs are met, encourage them to eat small meals throughout the day, and always make sure that their lunch and dinner includes a protein source, a carbohydrate source and at least two serves of fruit or vegetables. Teach them what a balanced meal looks like, too, so they can make healthy choices on their own.
Snack times are great opportunities to pack extra nutrition into a teen’s diet. If they play sport or attend training during dinnertime or other key eating times, snacks can be vital to maintaining energy levels. With all that growing to do, and all the exercise, there can actually be room for extra sugar in their diet (preferably coming from nutritious choices, such as dried fruit and flavoured milks). Likewise, a bit of extra fat can be okay, particularly if it’s coming from unsaturated fat sources like nuts and avocados. Some good snack ideas for your active teen include:
Yoghurt, custard, creamed rice or other dairy snacks
Milk and flavoured milk
Fruit, fruit juice, dried or tinned fruit
Cheese or cheese sticks
Sandwiches or cereals
Plain popcorn, crackers, pretzels or rice cracker snacks
Protein foods such as meat, hommous, nuts, seeds, eggs or baked beans.
How much energy do they need?
It is hard to know exactly how much energy your young athlete needs, since it’s difficult to calculate the amount and intensity of the activity. There is also evidence that young athletes use more energy than adults when doing the same exercise. But low body weight and fatigue are two warning signs that there is an energy imbalance. If you are concerned, consult a dietitian to ensure that your teen is meeting their nutritional and energy requirements, and meeting the expected growth rates for their age.
Warning signs that your young athlete may not be eating enough
Stunted growth or short stature (compared to family members)
Susceptibility to colds and 'flu
Sudden decreases in performance
Extreme fussiness or unbalanced vegetarian eating
Low self-esteem or negative body image
Irregular or delayed menstruation
Increased incidence of injuries, such as stress fractures
Consulting a dietitian is often money well spent. To find a local sports dietitian in your area, visit ‘Sports Dietitians Australia’ at www.sportsdietitians.com.au