The Adolescent Athlete
Updated: Feb 18
School is back, and so is the crossover of summer and winter sports. So, it’s time to talk about the adolescent athlete and how they are probably fueling ineffectively.
For those teenagers involved in sport, it is common for them to not eat enough to support their training. Research has linked undereating to dieting trends, the pressure to be leaner and/or a lack of nutrition knowledge (1, 2, 3). Overall, they just not hitting their baseline nutrition needs. This is due to a whole number of reasons which include the expense of healthier options, parent influence, food preference and the availability of low-cost fast food (4, 5, 6).
During their teenage years, an athletes nutrition education should be prioritized. This is vital, not only so they can perform well in sport, but to support their cognitive development and prevent any negative associations with food - as disordered eating is becoming an ever-growing concern.
So how do you know if they are under-eating?
Signs to look out for include:
• Feeling mentally and physically fatigued often
• Finding it hard to focus
• Coming home and raiding the pantry
• Often getting injured or sick
• Taking longer than normal to recover from exercise, injury or illness
• Changes in mood and feeling down
• Amenorrhea (loss of period)
That’s why it is a continuing discussion within the CGN team, so Katie interviews Conrad about the importance of nutrition with our adolescent athletes getting back into school and training.
Katie: Why is it important for teenagers to focus on what they are eating?
Conrad: Teenagers are normally still at home without the pressure of having to provide food for themselves. I think this is a prime opportunity for them to focus on what they are eating and learn about food. It’s kind of like having a safety net for when they want to try something new and implement new strategies. If teenagers get involved with the cooking and start thinking about their food now they will learn lifelong lessons for when they leave home and have to start doing it all themselves.
Katie: What do you commonly see adolescent athletes struggling with?
Conrad: The main thing is actually understanding what they require. What I often see, especially with teenagers that have very high training volumes, is that they don’t eat enough to support what they need. That comes down to things like time management, ensuring they are having enough food at school and sometimes lack the ability to plan ahead. Teenagers are not necessarily playing more sport, but there is a lot more training involved to participate in said sport. We have found parents are just thinking that what their child was eating prior is going to be enough for the now. Exercise performance has evolved rapidly in high school athletes, however we have not yet seen that in the nutrition space. They get the basic understanding in terms of performance nutrition but it’s not the performance nutrition that they actually require. Baseline nutrition is the important thing to nail, and that is the gap that is missing.
Katie: What do you think is influencing them to under eat?
Conrad: It’s a raft of different things really. But it’s a lack of understanding of what volumes of food they need. The pressure of being a certain leanness to affect their sport performance, is also being drilled into them from an early age. Now you tack social media on top of that, giving this false sense of what fit actually means and there becomes intentional under eating. There is also the non-intentional under eating where it’s the athlete not actually recognising how much more exercise they are doing and think they only need the same amount as their peers (who are not athletes). It is expensive for parents to fuel their children effectively and unfortunately they may be on the receiving end of throw away comments, like a ‘garbage disposal’, which can make the teenager feel a little bit bad at times as well.
Katie: What key nutrition tips should they focus on?
Conrad: I think the real simple ones for a teenager would be, first, to start cooking. To understand what food actually is, from when it is raw, to when it is made. The second thing is, start to read labels. Start to look at products and discuss these with their parents, with coaches/management or their peers. Third, what are you doing before and at school that is going to effectively fuel you? What I always see is teenagers coming home and eating ¾ of their daily intake after school. So, we need to think about what’s going to happen for breakfast? What are you doing for morning tea and lunch? Now lunch needs to be, not just a sandwich with a bit of ham in the middle. You have got to have it to dinner quality. And that is where the morning tea would be better to have a sandwich as like a decent sized snack, not just a piece of fruit. Unfortunately, the lunchbox school ideas need to be developed and we need parents communicating the message: can we get the kids to eat more at school, so they are not coming home and hoovering a whole loaf of bread. Which in turn, is going to compromise their energy at school and for after school trainings. So, looking at the timings food and actually eating more earlier in the day to fuel both in the classroom and on the sports/training field.
Katie: Recently we have seen an increase in childhood obesity, how can adolescents find the right balance?
Conrad: This is a very complicated area and I’m just going to briefly summarise it. When it comes to childhood obesity, studies have shown that children overall are significantly reducing the amount of physical activity time and spending a lot more time in front of a screen. This has been well shown in the research. The issue is, we have two ends of the spectrum that are going further a far. The messages that our athletes pick up are often Ministry of Health Guidelines which are saying our kids are getting fatter. What happens is, our athletes see that and think that they need to be leaner. But actually, it is kind of the opposite, where the messages that are being sent are very different for an athlete than a child that is coming home and playing video games. We need to really clear and concise in who the message is targeted at, to ensure that our athletes that are now training more than they have ever done before, are fueling themselves more than they have ever done before.
Katie Caldwell is an Associate Registered Nutritionist and Intern at CGN.
1. Desbrow B, McCormack J, Burke LM, Cox GR, Fallon K, Hislop M, et al. Sports Dietitians Australia position statement: sports nutrition for the adolescent athlete. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2014;24(5):570-84.
2. Burkhard S, Coad J, editors. Assessment of nutrition knowledge and food skills in talented adolescent athletes. Proceeding of the Nutrition Society of New Zealand; 2010.
3. Howe AS, Mandic S, Parnell WR, Skidmore PM. Attitudes to food differ between adolescent dieters and non-dieters from Otago, New Zealand, but overall food intake does not. Public Health Nutr. 2013;16(1):36-45.
4. Hill L, Casswell S, Maskill C, Jones S, Wyllie A. Fruit and vegetables as adolescent food choices in New Zealand. Health Promot Int. 1998;13(1):55-65.
5. University of Otago and, Ministry of Health. A Focus on Nutrition: Key Findings of the 2008/09 New Zealand Adult Nutrition Survey [Internet]. Wellington: Ministry of Health. 2011. Available from: http://www.health.govt.nz/system/files/documents/publications/a-focus-on-nutrition- v2.pdf
6. Trollope, L. Dietary Habits of New Zealand Male and Female Adolescents (Masters Thesis). University of Otago. 2020.