Our children surprise us nearly every day. But one of the biggest surprises can be when your son (or daughter) announces he's on a high-protein, low-fat, low-carb diet and asks you to buy spinach or another green leafy food he's rejected his entire life. Asked why, he explains he wants to develop his "abs."
Welcome to the world of tween and teen sports nutrition, where kids want to build muscle and strength-and coaches suddenly are the most important adults in a young person's world.
"This is really a great opportunity to get them engaged in talking about good nutrition and how they should be eating," explains Ellen Shanley, RD, dietetics director at the University of Connecticut, co-author of Fueling the Teen Machine and the mother of two.
Yet, "as a parent you need to be involved and ask questions if you do not agree or have questions about something the coach is stating."
Team participation and dietary habits
Unfortunately, not every student athlete is lean and fit. In a recent review of the research published in Current Sports Medicine Report, a journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, there's no evidence showing that sports participation prevents obesity in kids.
Those who play sports are more likely to consume fast food and sugar-sweetened beverages and take in more total calories than non-athletes.
Yet these same students often consume more vegetables, fruits and drink more milk than those not in sports.
It's likely no surprise to parents that many sports participants consume empty calorie foods. Think of the candy, sugar-sweetened drinks, chips and ice cream sold at games and meets.
And parents are often on the hook for bringing "treats" for practices and games, regardless of the amount of actual calories burned.
For building muscle, you must exercise those muscles, says Shanley. "The best way to build muscles is when aerobic exercise is combined with strength training. The energy to do this is provided mostly from carbohydrates, not protein."
Eat enough calories. An average teen female needs 2,000 calories each day and a male needs 2,300. But calorie needs can vary depending on the athlete's age, gender, height, weight, type of sport, playing time, intensity level and skill level.
Eat a good mix of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. 55-60 percent of the calories should come from carbohydrates, 20-35 percent or less from fat, and 15-20 percent from protein.
Most athletes need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day. For example, a 110-pound youth needs about 40 grams of protein.
Need help translating the recommendations? Consult a credentialed sports dietitian by logging onto scandpg.org/search-rd.
In addition to parental involvement, there's much that can be done by league officials and coaches of youth sport organizations to promote healthy dietary habits among participants.
Coaches and league officials can reach out to registered dietitians for educational seminars and to help develop simple, accurate nutrition education materials for parents, coaches and youths.
Nutrition guidelines can be developed by volunteer parent coordinators as to the type of food and beverages appropriate for organized snack schedules and concession stands.
As for your son frustrated with the lack of progress with his "six-pack" and biceps? Advise patience.
His male hormones will increase during the maturation process, and so will his ability to grow muscles.
Christine M. Palumbo, RD, is a nutritionist living in Naperville.
See more of Christine's stories here.