Active teenagers are increasingly focused on their weight, physique, athletic ability and body image. While this could be considered a step in the right direction for cultivating a healthier generation, many teens are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their body image goals.

The media continues to promote the concept of an ideal body image, which puts the pressure on boys to be more muscular and toned, and girls to be thin and lean.  What is best for teens with respect to sports, nutrition, supplements and athletic training?

Health World discussed these important topics with R. Craig Poole, EdD, Director of Sports Performance, National Athletic Institute (NAI).

Sports and Teen Athletes

Poole indicated “sport” is an important part of young peoples’ lives and many lessons can be learned through the medium of sport. For youngsters it is a means of developing skills, self-worth, self- concept, and a sense of achievement as well as a sense of excellence–which at their age is difficult to achieve. Sport also serves as a proving ground for developing discipline and self-control. Sport is designed for youngsters to develop coordination and skills that will last them a lifetime.

Craig Poole also notes that in itself, “sport” signifies a physical expression of excellence and expertise that an individual has developed over many hours of repetition and discipline. One of the outcomes that we would expect is the fact that physical skills are predicated on muscular development as well as a highly developed nervous system. Most of the activities teenagers are involved in are classified as power events and skill. Most sports require a short, explosive exertion of energy. The quality of this exertion is based on the energy found in proper nutrition. An Indianapolis race car can only perform at its best based upon the quality of fuel that is supplied. This indicates that the correct mixture of fuel components needs to be in the blend that the race team feeds into the car.

The same analogy can be used for the human body. Performance will be enhanced or enabled based on the quality of the fuel that is put into the organism. Another influence on outcome is individual body composition and its application to the sport. It has been said that the desirable composition of the human body should be a Lamborghini engine in a Volkswagen chassis. Understandably, all individuals are built differently and come in different sizes and shapes due to their genetics.

Yet, while teens are on their journey to become independent adults, many begin to introduce everything, from starvation diets to supplements and protein powders, into their nutrition regime. This can lead to eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. A teen’s short-term goal is to quickly achieve the media’s ideal body image without regard to their own personal health. As parents and educators we need to promote a lifetime of good nutrition and physical activity through education, support and reinforcement of healthy lifestyles.

Fueling Young Athletes with Proper Nutrition

In every case, nutritional education becomes an important component and necessary ingredient in athletic success and general wellbeing. There are many fallacies in the nutrition world and many claims that are unfounded. Vitamins, minerals, and protein powders are overly advertised with claims that cannot be substantiated. Our advice to young athletes is that good nutrition can be found in whole foods and the selection of foods will determine the quality of the nutrient uptake necessary to fuel the human engine.

Foods are broken down into various food groups: (A) Proteins, (B) Carbohydrates, (C) Fats. We also need a wide range of vitamins and minerals in our diet. They are needed in small quantities and a varied diet can provide our normal requirements without the need for supplementation. However, if supplementation were necessary, it would be best to consult a physician and nutrition counselor to determine individualized needs.

Poole suggests the use of the “Food Guide Pyramid for Athletes” as a guideline.  At the base of the pyramid on top we have:

  1. Breads, Cereals, Rice and Pasta: 6 to 11 servings per day.
  2. Vegetables: 3-5 servings per day. Fruits: 2-4 servings per day.
  3. Meats, Poultry and Fish, Dry Beans, Eggs and Nuts: 3 servings per day. Milk, Yogurt, and Cheese: 2-3 servings per day.
  4. Fats, Oils and Sweets: to be used sparingly.

Athletes can easily choose foods which will give them their total calorie diet in a ratio of: 55-70% Carbohydrates, 15% Proteins, and 30% or less in Fats.

If you analyze this pyramid, an over-emphasis on any one group will not provide the necessary nutrients or calories necessary to perform well. “Variety” is the watchword when it comes to nutrition. Perhaps the most important concept is balancing the meals according to what is suggested, along with the quantity of food that one consumes.

Fats, carbohydrates, and sugars are easy to come by. Therefore, our diet is usually in excess in these two groups. So the question then becomes, “How much protein should I consume?”

Nutritionists and sports advocates suggest that the amount of protein in the diet should equate to about 1.25-1.5 g/kg, or .5-.9 g/lbs. of body weight. As an example, a boy weighing 150 lbs. would need protein the equivalent to about 1/3 pound per day. Any more than that would be excessive and, if the extra energy is not consumed by exercise, can be stored as fat (an undesirable result).

For carbohydrates, it is advised to watch how much one is consuming and do not over consume by going past the suggested ratio.

In terms of vegetables, the recommendation is to consume a variety of all kinds and types; the more color the better. Vegetables have a lot of vitamins and minerals and a low calorie count. On the other hand, fruits are a form of sugar and although packaged in roughage, when consumed to excess will create insulin spikes and stimulate fat storage.

Athletes should also consider additional guidelines regarding nutrition: First, a good breakfast is an important part of the day and should contain appropriate food groups. The second meal of the day should have sufficient carbohydrate calories with some protein and fats to prepare the body for activity. The final meal of the day should be designed to replenish the calories and energy lost due to exercise. This meal should come within two hours following the conclusion of exercise and be a complete, well-balanced meal. One technique that has proven to be very beneficial for athletes regarding protein is a consumption of 2 percent milk prior to and after exercise. Researchers have found that an eight ounce glass of 2 percent chocolate milk following exercise replenishes almost completely the required carbohydrates and primary proteins. This simple advice will save the athlete and their parents a considerable amount of money. Most protein supplements today are made from whey protein (milk) and are very expensive if purchased in bulk. Milk appears to be a less expensive and more convenient way to replenish the body’s need for proteins before and after workouts.


How about vitamin and mineral supplements? If one is consuming a balanced diet as recommended, these needs will be satisfied. However, if one feels he is not getting the sufficient levels of vitamins and minerals required to function, he should have a complete physical and blood analysis by a physician to determine the deficiencies, thus providing a scientific basis and backing for supplementation. A number of physicians and nutritionists suggest a strong multivitamin so as not to leave any deficiency, which may be found with inadequate food selection.

Poole has consistently observed and been associated with the impact nutrition has on athletic performance levels, and would highly recommend the combined events development project entitled, “Performance Nutrition Newsletter,” which can be found online ( Be advised, many online nutrition resources have a product to sell and as a result, use information that appears to be correct to make their case. Poole’s advice: Make sure that the information is scientifically based and tested. Scientific research is continually being upgraded which requires each one of us to be diligent in our study. If you keep up to date, answers will be provided to most questions asked by young performing athletes. The guidelines presented here are based upon research and applications known for excellent results.

As a Professional Level III Track and Field Coach who has worked with elite athletes for 50 years, Poole can attest that nutrition is an important component of an athlete’s training regime. Energy intake in the right combinations and in the right amounts, as well as the timing, can make a significant difference in the performance level of elite performers both young and old.


Avoid and Do Not Purchase or Consume supplements that claim to enhance growth hormones or any other androgenic enhancement, i.e., testosterone stimulators, growth hormone stimulators, etc. These go outside of normal growth and development and adaptations which are unhealthy for young athletes and go against international doping rules for all athletics.

Training and Workouts:

Gym memberships, weight room access and personal workouts have become increasingly common for male and female athletes.  So, is strength training recommended for pre-teens and teens?

When strength training is introduced the right way, it may even empower teens to incorporate a lifetime of health and fitness. Poole advocates for appropriate resistance training, which leads to strength gains. In the beginning a variety of exercises using body weight is recommended. This is called “Functional Movement Training.”  This is best because the training consists of body weight with the emphasis on balance and coordination and the development of multiple skills.

It is easy to overload the muscular system with weight training; the tendency is to try to lift too much too soon. When this happens the muscular gains outrun the connective tissue adaptations which many times results in connective tissue injury. Another down side that has been reported is weights that are too heavy can result in premature closing of the epiphyseal plates (a hyaline cartilage plate in the metaphysis at each end of a long bone. The plate is found in children and adolescents) in developing young athletes which determines total body height. (A Doctor’s examination can determine when the process has been completed; this process occurs at different ages for different kids and genders) When engaging in weight training, in the beginning, the emphasis should be on the skill and mastery of the movements involved in the major lifts. Neural muscular adaptations will ultimately result in strength gains, even before additional weights are added. Strength training should emphasize the rate of force development and mastery of the specificity of skills. Muscle and body stabilization is as important as the total strength gains. Getting strong to lift heavy weight is important to some extent, but the ultimate outcome is the development of power (speed of contraction and skill). As training proceeds, muscle development becomes a result; however, putting on massive body weight should not be the goal. The goal should be the enhancement of skill acquisition and expression. Any program should carry with it the concept of gradual adaptations. Real gains come slowly.

This information is only meant to give basic direction and encourage the study of proper fueling for peak performance. It is in no means exhaustive nor does it address the individual needs of individual athletes. Proper consultation with sports nutritionists and medical personnel is advised. This topic is best understood when individuals involved have studied in detail the needs for peak performance based upon their unique needs.

Peter Rusin is Executive Director and Kym Zilke is Executive Vice President of Health World, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit, dedicated to promoting education and providing children with the information they need to build healthy, safe lives. Visit their website at to bring programming to your school or community.Thank you to R. Craig Poole EdD, Director of Sports Performance at the National Athletic Institute for his contribution to this article.   Visit

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