Teens need proper food to satisfy their physical needs

Fuelling teenage bodies as they juggle school work, night study, personal stuff and sports is challenging


Trying to keep your fridge full if you have teenagers at home is much like the punishment dealt to Sisyphus. Being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this forever, might even be less frustrating than the endless shopping and stocking-up required to keep them fed.

We tend to forget that, at this age, boys in particular have higher nutrient requirements than most fully grown men.

Fuelling their bodies as they juggle school work, night study, personal commitments and sports is pretty challenging.

The tighter and more jam-packed their schedule, the better the planning has to be around meal and snack provision at home.

Schools can support their students by ensuring the cafeteria and vending machines, if they have them, offer nutritious choices to fuel both the brain and the physical demands of developing bodies.

The weekly meal plans should be accessible to parents on school websites. Students should be encouraged to liaise and give feedback to school management and caterers so food choices can be improved where necessary.

Then there is the student’s personal responsibility. Avoiding the lure of fizzy drinks from vending machines, or the fast- food outlet just outside the school gates can be difficult, especially if a student has not thought ahead or has forgotten a lunch, after-school snack or cafeteria token.

Older students occasionally have rooms with kettles and microwaves, but given that many stay after school either for training or supervised study, it seems more could be done to keep them well fuelled on the premises.

Training schedules

Pressure on athletes to bulk up for certain positions or sports means they are constantly seeking out time to eat; time that just isn’t there in a busy schedule.

A growing reliance on protein and amino acid powders, fat burners and creatine is inevitable, given their convenience and the time constraints.

Sports supplements are not produced for teenagers, and there is no evidence that they are safe for this age group. However, if teenagers continue to see supplements as the quick-fix for bulking up and better performance, online sales of unregulated supplements will increase.

Schools need to prioritise their players’ nutritional health, just as they do their physical health. It is imperative that coaches and physical activity teachers drive home the message that it is “food first” for the under-18s.

Parents don’t have the same clout. Guidelines around the proper use of isotonic drinks, multivitamin, iron or calcium supplements should be available for athletes and parents.

Sport-specific dietary guidelines can help fuel the teenage body for rigorous training and recovery but this requires particular school resources and support interventions.

Basic rules are obvious: eat breakfast; eat a recovery snack after strength-training and before school; eat snacks between classes, if necessary, in order to keep your energy levels up; have a well-balanced lunch; snack in the afternoon before training; have an evening meal before night study.

Good hydration is critical for sports performance. Dehydration makes exercise a lot harder than usual and the athlete tires earlier. It can cause nausea, dizziness, vomiting, and an inability to concentrate.

Many schools allow water bottles in the classroom and students are encouraged to drink little and often throughout the day, not just during the training session. Everyone can check for dehydration by noting the frequency, colour and volume of their urine.

Urine should be pale, except first thing in the morning when it is much darker.

Main fuels

During exercise, glycogen is broken down into glucose to supply the working muscles with energy. If someone who exercises a lot does not eat adequate carbohydrate, glycogen stores will be less than optimal; they will tire earlier and their performance will suffer.

As a rough guideline for working out carbohydrate requirements, if you are doing 60-90 minutes’ training, you need between 7g and 10g of carbohydrate per kilo of bodyweight.

Carbs for athletes

The carbohydrates found in jam, jellies, toffee and chocolate, fizzy drinks, squash, sports drinks, meringues, ice-cream, cakes and biscuits are much less nutritious and don’t contain the same package of additional nutrients athletes need.

Whether it’s a meal or snack, the balance should fall in favour of the more nutritious carbohydrates, with a much a smaller emphasis on the less nutritious carbohydrate list.

An adequate protein intake is essential at this age and necessary for muscle growth, muscle repair and for strength sports in particular.

Good proteins include chicken, turkey, fresh and tinned fish, lean red meat; eggs, fortified milk, lower fat cheeses and yogurt; beans, lentils, peas, quinoa; and milk-based drinks. A protein-rich food can be included in each meal and recovery snack.

It is inadvisable for anyone under 18 to buy specialised protein powders, bars or supplements either online or through magazines as they are more likely to be associated with an increased risk of inadvertent doping, adverse health effects and other associated problems.

If a student or parent has a concern, they should raise it with coaches, caterers and school management.

The IRFU, the GAA and the INDI all provide comprehensive nutrition guidelines and menu plans, and sometimes an individual or group consultation with a qualified dietitian is warranted.

Paula Mee is a dietitian at Medfit Proactive Healthcare and is a member of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute. See medfit.ie; @paula_mee

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