Is your active kid constantly raiding the fridge? Nutritionist Cindy Williams has help for teens with high energy needs, and parents with empty pantries!
“Help! My teenager has developed hollow legs, and my grocery bill has tripled!”
Parents of teens will recognise this common cry, which gets even louder if your teen plays lots of sport. Athletic kids need the right fuel — not only to help them perform at their best on the sportsground, but also to support their swift growth and development. On top of that, busy parents (the family taxi drivers!) often have little time to plan and prepare satisfying and nutritious meals and snacks.
Why is my teen so hungry?
Your child’s shooting up while he’s shooting hoops! In girls, this growth spurt usually peaks around the age of 12 or 13, whereas boys experience it a little later, at 14 or 15.
The first sign is usually fast growth in their hands and feet, hence the frequent trips to buy larger shoes! Over four years, a boy can grow 30cm taller, put on 6kg of muscle and build his heart muscle by 40 per cent — rapid growth that requires energy in the form of abundant food.
Which foods do teens need for growth and energy?
Though everyone needs to eat a wide range of nutritious foods, sporty teens need to increase their intake of the following:
Carbohydrates provide energy for growth and sport. Active teenagers who lack energy due to inadequate carb consumption can tire easily, and fatigue adversely affects their performance, both on the sports field and in the classroom.
Protein keeps kids feeling satisfied after meals and helps muscles grow and repair after training. Muscle recovery is essential, as it ensures adequate growth and development during adolescence.
Water replaces fluids, thereby preventing dehydration. Sporty kids sweat a lot, so they often lose large amounts of fluid, and dehydration can lead to poor concentration and low energy levels.
All teenagers, whether sporty or not, also need to increase their intake of these nutrients:
Fast-growing teens need iron-rich foods for growth, energy and a strong immune system. A teenage boy needs more iron than a younger boy or a man, due to the huge amount of growth that occurs during these years. Girls require even more, because their daily iron needs nearly double when their periods start. Iron is also lost in sweat, which is another reason that active teens need to get enough.
Red meat is the best source of iron, so put a palm-size steak on your teen’s menu at least twice a week. Girls often struggle to hit their daily iron target, so provide plenty of other iron-rich foods, such as raw nuts, wholegrain bread, leafy green vegies (such as spinach and kale), eggs and fortified milk with Milo. Vegetarians can find it even more difficult to consume enough iron, and without careful planning, this could impair their sports performance.
This key mineral strengthens adolescents’ speedily growing bones, helping to prevent osteoporosis down the track. To build strong bones, teens need to do weight-bearing exercise and eat high-calcium foods. Make sure your teenager is eating at least three daily serves of calcium-rich dairy foods, such as a glass of milk, a tub of yoghurt or a couple of slices of cheese.
How do I make sure my active teen is getting enough fuel?
Skipping a meal is like skipping a training session, according to the Australian Institute of Sport. Active teenagers need to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as nutritious snacks. Kids are often so busy, tired or distracted, they can’t be bothered eating or preparing their own snacks. Even if they say they aren’t hungry, just put a small plate of food in front of them, and they’ll probably eat something. Energy-dense drinks, such as nutrient-rich smoothies and liquid breakfast beverages, can be another handy way to give teens extra energy.
Can excessive exercise affect teens’ growth?
Teens who do lots of exercise will not impair their growth. In fact, exercise builds bone, cartilage and muscle, helping kids grow into healthy adults with reduced risks of osteoporosis and arthritis. During childhood, high-impact exercise actually increases knee cartilage and strength. But a glut of even good habits can cause problems: If your active teen is showing signs of fatigue or sore muscles, or if she seems to be losing interest in sport, she could be overdoing it. As the saying goes, everything in moderation!
Do teens need supplements?
Teenagers can fulfil all of their nutrient requirements with good-quality real food. They don’t need protein powders or nutrition supplements as ‘insurance’. Your child should take such supplements only on the advice of a doctor, specialist or sports dietitian.
Do teens need sports drinks?
Sports drinks are an expensive way to hydrate, so if your teen’s training sessions are under an hour or of moderate intensity (think light jogging rather than sprinting), water is the best way to replace lost fluids. In contrast, sports drinks can play a role when exercise is highly intense, such as at a sports carnival or fierce match. These drinks contain small amounts of carbohydrate and sodium, both of which speed fluid absorption, and teens can drink them an hour before, or during, a high-intensity exercise session for an instant rehydrating energy boost. Be aware that some sports drinks are no more than hyped-up sweet water, so look for a brand that’s 4 to 8 per cent carbohydrate with 23 to 46mg of sodium per 100ml.
Are there any foods that teens should avoid?
When it seems that however much your sporty teenager eats, he never gains weight, you may be tempted to think he can get away with eating fatty, salty or sugary snacks. But chips, cakes, biscuits, chocolate and soft drinks simply aren’t satisfying or nutritious enough for growing teenagers. For optimal health and sports performance, kids need to eat top-quality foods that can provide them with sustained energy.
Watch out for unhealthy behaviour
In general, sport is a great way for teenagers to develop a good relationship with their changing bodies. However, some teens (especially girls) can become so self-conscious that they worry obsessively about gaining weight, while others (usually boys) get very anxious about failing to gain muscle.
If you have any concerns or need specialised advice, speak to your doctor or a sports dietitian. To find a local dietitian, visit daa.asn.au.
Snacks for sporty teens
For inspiring snack ideas when it seems impossible to fill up your hungry teen, click the Downloads button below and print out our handy poster to hang on the pantry door!