The first year that Clara was on a regional volleyball team I realized how very unaware some people are of the nutritional needs–especially those of the young athlete.

We were down in Salt Lake, getting ready for what would be a very early and long day. On tournament weekends the girls can play 8-12 games over 2 short days.  For teens, who are still growing, this means they need a lot of extra nutrition and hydration. The coaches had planned ahead, knowing that play would be starting too early to wait for breakfast at the hotel. Early in the morning they started a crock pot full of some grain cereal concoction along with a protein powder–that I think it was supposed to be chocolate. From a technical standpoint, it was a pretty healthy breakfast, but for young girls who had never eaten this way, and some who rarely ate breakfast at all, it was a nightmare.   I found morbid amusement as I watched the team turn grey as they struggled to get down the goo. Clara, who had eaten grains since little, was fine–except I knew she would be hungry again very soon.  The morning was not off to a good start.  Nor was the season, as the current team mom responsible for providing lunch, snacks and breakfast offered mostly highly processed, sugared and sweet foods for the rest of the tournaments.

The grain cereal wasn’t enough for Clara, even with the protein powder. By mid morning she had raided Gary and I’s lunch box and consumed most of our chicken salad, downed a large soy chai, and was diving into the fruit between games.  300 calories, 260 calories…I started taking mental notes of how many calories she was taking in between games.  At the end of the day, she had packed away more than 3,300 calories.  This was new territory for us, so I started making sure that I packed extra foods for Clara and the girls who would needed it.  The following year, I requested to take over the role of providing food for the team.

Enough of the stories. The purpose of this blog is share some tips and recommendations I make as a Holistic Nutritionist and mother of an athlete.

Know the nutritional needs of teens–With athletes, it’s not (usually) about treating a disorder, but rather about making sure they get in enough foods that body can effectively process and turn into the Qi, Blood and Fluids they will need to get through the game.  It makes sense to start with the western approach to nutrition that breaks down needs into required calories, protein and nutrients.  From there, you refine the diet, taking into consideration gender, type activity, season and other variants.  Here’s a quick look at the average recommended daily allowances for active kids.

From a western nutritional perspective, the young athlete’s diet should be about

  • 50-60% carbohydrates
  • 15-20% protein
  • 20-30% fats during their high activity times.

Hopefully, we all know that not all carbohydrates, proteins and fats are equal.  This is where Asian food energetics shines–we need to view the whole energetics of the foods and how it affect the body. I guarantee the protein of tofu is not the same as the protein of lentils or beef–but I’m getting ahead of myself.

General Nutritional Requirements for Athletes 12-18 years

Teen athletes need about 300-700 extra calories a day above the normal recommendations for their less active peers.  This amount will also vary on the type and amount of activity and their personal metabolism. Below is a quick overview of calories and macro nutrients.

Nutrient Amount
Calories for boys 12-15: 2,800-3,300;    16-18: 3,100-3,500
Calories for girls 12-15: 2,300-3,000;    16-18: 2,500-3,200
Water 3-5 quarts
Protein 75-100 grams
Fats  60-80 grams
Calcium  600-1,000mg
Chromium  250-350 mg
Copper  2-3 mg
Iodine  150-250 mcg
Iron  boys: 10-15 mg;  girls: 20-25 mg
Magnesium  400-650 mg
Manganese  5-15 mg
Potassium  2-3 g
Selenium  250-400 mg
Silicon  100-200 mg
Zinc  boys: 30-60 mg; girls: 15-30 mg
Vitamin A  5,000-10,000 IUs
Beta-carotene  15,000-25,000 IUs
B1 (Thiamine)  75 mg
B2 (Riboflavin)  25-75 mg
B3 (Niacin)  50 mg
B5 (Pantothenic Acid)  1,000 mg
B6 (Pyridoxine)  50 mg
B12 (Cobalamin)  100 mcg
Vitamin D  400 IUs
Vitamin E  400-900 IUs
Folic Acid  800 mcg
Vitamin C  2-5 g
Bio Flavonoids  250-500 mg

A few tips for feeding active teens

Eat a good breakfast–The food that you start the day of with sets the tone for the whole day–whether you are an athlete or not. What you eat in the morning is what your body will digest to make into what sustains you through the day. For teens that are still growing, it is very important that the breakfast include healthy proteins, carbohydrates and fats. They are still growing and building. After a game or two of pointing out to the girls that were skipping breakfast why they were moving slow, making mistakes or just didn’t have the energy to play well.  I started making sure the cooler and lunch was packed with a few extra items that could be a quick breakfast for the girl who forgot. And breakfast doesn’t have to be the traditional American breakfast. Soups, stews and stir fry and miso can make a great start to the morning.

Avoid weird or unfamiliar foods on game days–Asking kids to try something that they are unfamiliar with, no matter how healthy it might be, on game day is asking for trouble. They may not be experimental, or their bodies simply may have a problem assimilating the food if they’ve never been exposed to it.  Having to sit out a game because of a stomachache sucks, and once moods start to swing in teenagers–well, here comes the Liver Qi stagnation. I tried to avoid these problems by taking a quick idea of what the girls enjoyed eating, what they disliked, making sure that very little processed or refined food was around and providing a variety so they could explore if they wanted. If you provide food for others, be sure to find out about food sensitivities or allergies. Fortunately, it’s been my experience that most of the athletes I’ve provided food for don’t have food allergies–we’ll save that topic for another blog.

Eat lunch–Too many times I see teens who are skipping meals or eating foods that provide little or no real sustenance.  Just eating watermelon after playing for 4 hours will not get them through the next 3 hours.

Don’t overeat at lunch–If they stuff themselves, they will be dragging through the rest of day, or wanting to curl up for a nap. I always made sure there was something sour or bitter around to help aid digestion and provide energy more quickly.

Use the sour flavor–Sour moves Qi rapidly.  People who have a tendency to drag after eating meals often have slow and sluggish digestive systems. Use sour to perk you up. This might be lemon slices for water, pickles, pickle juice, apple cider vinegar, tart cherries or apples, berries sour plums, lemon slices, grapefruit and other citrus peel. Maybe the occasional sour candies.

Use the pungent flavor-The pungents also move Qi and Blood and aid digestion. This can be peppers, mints, onions, leeks, radish, jicama (yeah, they will eat it if it’s presented to them).

Use the bitter flavorAnother underused flavor in the American diet, we eat bitter mostly as coffee and chocolate.  The bitter flavor is another major Qi mover. Find it also in dark greens, berries, citrus peels.  Kale chips with a little cayenne on them are good source of sour and bitter.

Use the salty flavorThey kids are going to be sweating, which means loss of minerals.  Processed foods are often heavily loaded with poor quality sodium. I make sure to use a high quality salt rich with iodine and other minerals in the food I provide. Other snacks like seaweed chips or California rolls, olive tapenade or olives added to hummus will also provide the salty flavor. It will also be present in cheeses, pickled and brined foods.  Usually, I stocked the a small container of just straight salt just in case….salt licks for teens.

volleyball lunch

lunch and snacks for the team

What went into the cooler and lunch box

  • Staples–these were always present in the the lunch box or cooler. Some could be made ahead of time and stored for use throughout the season.
    • trail mix or spiced nuts--make up extra and store it in the freezer to avoid rancidity
    • miso & nutbutter spread
    • dried fruit or fruit leathers
    • fig and fruit bars–I ran across some excellent organic fig and fruit bars
    • ginger candies or ginger and honey crystals–warming, moves Liver Blood and helps relieve cramping and menstrual pain.
    • jerky–one team loved it, another not so much.
    • crackers of some variety
    • seaweed or kale chips
    • honey sticks or organic shot block type chews. There are varieties with or without caffeine. Most of the caffeine is coming from Yerba Mate in these brands. Check your local coop or running and athletic store.

Pick a few few from each category.

  • Protein sources–I mostly avoided turkey because of the high levels of tryptophan which makes you sleepy.  Nothing like having comatose kids on the courts.
    • chicken salad–one team begged for chicken salad and would devour it, another not so much.
    • jerky
    • meat, cheese and veg wraps
    • spring rolls
    • hummus or other bean dip
    • meat and cheese slices and crackers
    • nut butters with vegetables or crackers
    • claufoutis, quiche or other egg dishes
  • Happy Fat sources
    • guacamole
    • cucumber yogurt dip
    • ranch dip
    • nut butters and nut butter dips
    • olives
    • yogurt
    • cheeses–a variety– there are great organic cheese sticks, and fantastic goat’s and sheep’s cheese, not to mention cream cheeses
  • Grain based carbohydrate–be concerned if you have an athlete who is ‘avoiding carbohydrates’ as many diets are recommending these days. It is true that too many simple carbohydrates like breads and bagels can help you pack on the pounds, this is usually more a concern for adults not the teen athlete. It is carbohydrates that provide energy to move–both simple and complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates like whole grains, lentils and legumes are best but some refined for athletes should be fine.
    • rice crackers
    • organic corn chips–I emphasize organic when talking about corn because it is one of the most GMO riddled foods…sorry, I’m not serving your kids GMO’s.
    • granola
    • chips and crackers–one group like rice crackers, the other liked the Horizon organics that remind us all of Ritz.
    • bagels
    • pretzels
  • Vegetables–if prepped vegetables were provided, the girls ate them. I mostly cut them into dippable sizes
    • carrots
    • cucumbers
    • peppers–the little sweet peppers are a favorite
    • celery
    • broccoli
    • cauliflower
    • sugar snap peas
    • alphalpha, sunflower or other microgreens and sprouts
  • Fruit
    • watermelon and other melon–cooling and hydration–they ate so much melon!
    • apples
    • pineapple
    • grapes
    • citrus fruits
    • berries
  • Treats–a little quick energy
    • fruit leathers
    • chocolates–I would provide small organic chocolate squares, or they could dig through the trail mix to find a few  M & M type things
    • cookies or black bean brownies–yep, made from scratch, rarely left over
  • What’s to drink?  Water, preferably not overly cooled as body temperature water is more readily absorbed.  I also provided EmergenC packets if the girls wanted them or they could add lemon and cucumber to their water for electrolytes.

Here’s to a great season!