Eight steps to healthy nutrition for teenage rowers

Active teenagers need particularly beneficial diets if they are going to blossom into healthy adults. Jacqueline Birtwisle shares her tips

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Healthy and happy rowers (c) Drew Smith

There is no gold standard for teenagers as far as nutrition is concerned because it’s difficult to know how many calories, how much protein, fat and carbohydrate a child or teenage athlete needs. One thing is certain though, teenage rowers need to eat lots of nutritious food from a variety of sources to meet their higher energy and protein needs.

Read on for eight tips for healthy rowers.

1. Adolescent demands

Unlike adults, the diets of teenagers have to provide nutrients for growth and development.

Children will gain about 20% of adult height and 50% of adult weight during adolescence – this requires a good diet and some ‘serious sleep’, especially if the expected final height of the teenager is tall.

2. Carbohydrates

Rowing involves a mix of power and endurance training as well as technique. This means that requirements for carbohydrates are high and fat is also used as a fuel so good food sources of fat should also be included. We do know that carbohydrate is an important fuel to optimise sporting performance and recovery in teenagers, but we do not know exactly how much is needed.

This is in contrast to guidelines we can refer to for exercising adults (defined as 18 years and over) – for example the Food Pyramid for Swiss Athletes, or the work done by Louise Burke from the Australian Institute of Sport on carbohydrates for training and competition.

3. Fats

Compared with an adult’s metabolism, children and younger teens use more fat as fuel and rely less on glycogen or carbohydrate during prolonged exercise. However, there is no evidence that young rowers will benefit from a higher fat content in their diet – the advice should be in line with public health guidelines which advise eating less saturated and trans fats and using smaller amounts of unsaturated fats: e.g. from oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), nuts and nut butters, seeds, vegetable oils or avocados. But likewise, this does not translate to an overly restricted fat intake!

Too little fat will result in poor growth and development, and problems with essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) – nutrients that are vital for the health of the immune system and bones in particular.

Supplements, unless being clinically prescribed and monitored, are not advised
4. Iron and calcium

Growth and change is so rapid during adolescence, that as well as getting enough calories, three nutrients of particular concern are protein, iron and calcium. Rowers in general can be at risk of poor iron status, and both teenage boys and girls may struggle to meet their iron needs.

5. Protein

Adolescents have higher protein requirements than adults, but in normal Western diets the amount of protein eaten is sufficient to cover this.

Remember protein is found in bread, rice and pasta as well as milk, fish, meat and poultry. As long as a teenager is meeting energy requirements, their protein intake will be fine and even if calories are restricted, protein intake has been shown to be okay.

Protein is found in bread, rice and pasta as well as milk, fish, meat and poultry
6. Liquid intake

Children and younger teens have lower sweat rates and a greater tendency to overheat in hot / humid environments, so parents and coaches need to pay particular attention to hydration and what they like to drink (for children and young teens).

Water is a good all-round option before, during, and after exercise, and water should be encouraged to be drunk with meals.

If taste is a concern, then sugar-free cordials can be used instead – although there is the issue of dental enamel erosion with sugar-free drinks due to the high acidity.

Active adolescents using branded sports drinks that are high in sugar, are at low risk of putting on unwanted fat or weight providing they are used when exercising for longer than 60 minutes. However, the concern does still exist that overuse in children may influence obesity and dental problems.

7. No supplements needed

There is no evidence that the general use of supplements will improve performance in teenagers. Hence supplements, unless being clinically prescribed and monitored, are NOT advised.

In addition parents with children at a standard of (any) sport good enough to be subject to drug testing should make themselves and their children aware of the risk of taking supplements.

Three nutrients of particular concern are protein, iron and calcium

See British Rowing’s advice on supplements here.

8. Eating disorder support

Teenagers – both boys and girls – are at high risk of developing eating disorders and low energy availability (LEA), disordered eating and eating disorders are common in those doing sport at a high level. For further information, support or downloadable resources click here.

This article first appeared in Rowing & Regatta magazine – find out more here