Working with pre-teens and teenagers, especially females, is something most nutrition coaches tend to shy away from. This is especially true with the type of coaching I do, where I encourage counting, weighing, and measuring of foods. The umbrella fear is that we will “create a monster” so to speak, of a young girl (or boy) obsessed with the specific quantities of food he or she is putting in their body and constantly assessing how their body is physically changing due to food consumption. I do not need to speak any further on the topic, we all know where I am going and we understand the dangers of approaching this topic in a population that is so vulnerable. However, do we really think just ignoring the topic of nutrition altogether in adolescents is really the answer? It isn’t, and although difficult and fragile, the more we ignore something because of the discomfort it presents, the less we are actually solving. Ricklynn recently released a great Q&A piece and answered an inquiry on the subject, so I know the questions and concerns are out there! I decided it was necessary to shed light and address this subject because daily I get inquiries from many adolescents reaching out and looking for nutrition advice. Most of them come to me because they are aspiring weightlifters, crossfitters, or other type of competitive athletes. Even at their young age, they are taking training seriously and understand that proper nutrition is an integral part of this training. I feel they should be rewarded for understanding this, and it is my responsibility as a nutrition coach to help them in the best way possible – not ignore them because the subject of food, physical appearance, and a teenage girl is scary and borderline disastrous. That being said, if you are a coach or mentor to a teenager or even pre-teen, or a fellow nutrition coach who has the opportunity to work with youngsters, I hope this piece is helpful and insightful! Let me end this intro by reiterating that I am not an expert on this topic, not even close. I am not a psychologist, I have not studied eating disorders in-depth, nor handling intricate nutrition counseling to the youth; this is not me preaching on how to end the very common issue of youth/teen body image, and a poor relationship with food. This is simply my recommendation, as an experienced nutrition coach, on how to handle the topic instead of simply ignoring it.
1) Let The Children Come To You!
This should be a no brainer but I often hear so many parents or coaches tell me that they have a child who “needs nutrition coaching”. The funny thing about this is that very rarely do I get an email or are told from an adult, that they have another adult that needs nutrition coaching. It seems that because we - as adults - know that we have authority over youngsters, we can tell them when they need nutrition advice and help. Although technically correct, this is a setup for a disaster and we should avoid it. However, that being said, when a young person comes to you expressing interest in the subject – help them! If you feel uncomfortable or unable to do so, refer them to someone who can. I get excited when I get emails from young athletes asking me to work with them because I know they get it. As exercise and sport coaches, we get excited when young talent walks in the gym with amazing work ethic. This is how I feel as a nutrition coach when a young person reaches out for guidance. Let them come to you, and if they do, show them the way! My initial response is always to send them some literature to read and report back to me with questions as well as 5 main ideas that they think are most important from what they read. This is essentially “homework” – something this age group is all too familiar with, and gets them really understanding that this will be an educational process more than anything. If they do not respond back, I know that they reached out for the wrong reasons, or simply could not be bothered anymore.
2) Pre-Teen/Teenager – Difference in Approach?
When I refer to a pre-teen, I will be talking about someone who is pre-pubescent. They are still growing quickly and need adequate fuel. They really should not have a “goal weight” (unless there is a severe case and they are being medically handled – in which case they probably shouldn’t be seeking your help anyway) and their nutrition should be based around performance and making adequate choices. I am currently working with a few pre-teens (age 12) and I have developed a system that I find works for me in dealing with them. I allow them to use the Flexible Nutrition approach, but instead of having them track the amount of fats, carbs, and protein they are consuming, and putting a limit on each – I simply teach them proper balance and what macronutrients are used for what purposes when fueling their training. We work in percentages only (the complete opposite of what I do with adults). Working in percentages allows me to not cap their intake. They eat when they are hungry and eat as much food daily as their growing body desires, however, they aim to stay within the correct proportions I have outlined for them. This encourages balance, the overall essence of flexible nutrition, yet doesn’t have them scared of intake or fearful that “more food is bad”. Just like I do with my adults, during their seasons or very taxing training days, I may incorporate a refeed where I adjust their percentages for that specific day (usually increasing carb and fat intake). This reiterates the idea that food is a source of fuel and should be primarily associated with providing us energy, not changing our body’s appearance. So, do I even have them log their food? Of course. Logging is the only way for them to keep track when dealing with proportions. No, I do not have them weigh and measure and no I do not make as big a deal out of logging as I do with my adults. Instead, I teach them how to estimate and “eyeball” portions, and how to properly read a nutrition label for serving sizes and “servings per package”. I direct their attention to the pie chart section of My Fitness Pal and they are taught to keep the percentages and pie chart in line with my recommendations as much as possible. In a nutshell, it is as simple as that really. Do not limit, but teach balance.
Teenagers differ than pre-teens quite a bit with how I handle them. Lets all rack our brains for a minute and think back to the basic anatomy we learned in high school. Not all teenagers are created equal and not all develop on the same schedule – mentally and physically. Because of this, some teenagers will have to be treated more like the younger population I just spoke about, and some can be treated more like an adult. This will obviously depend on the age - as a thirteen year old and a seventeen year old are, without a doubt, very different animals. It will also depend on the gender of the individual as we know that most males continue to grow even past their teenage years while females stop growing much sooner. It is your job as a coach to get to know your athlete or client and understand how to approach working with them. As a coach, I generally deal with two different types of teenagers.
- Teens trying to take a healthier approach to nutrition while working toward changing body composition. (don’t need to worry about actual number on the scale)
- Teens who compete in weightlifting (or another weight class sport) and because of that deal with weigh-ins and having to maintain a training weight throughout their season.
The first group, if I feel they are ready (more on the adult side of the spectrum) I will provide them with numbers and teach them how to execute Flexible Nutrition the way I normally would. I avoid having them constantly get on the scale or checking body fat percentage and a lot of our assessment communication is about performance, recovery, and how they feel. Again, this is gearing the focus to the idea that food is fuel and getting a proper handle on nutrition, as a way to enhance their performance, should be the main priority of what we are doing. They came to you because they clearly value the importance of this topic, so coach them that way. Education is above all. We know the process of Flexible Nutrition works so results will take care of themselves if we properly educate and help them execute.
With the second group of teens (the competitive weightlifters or other) I really do not have a choice about asking them to track and measure their food as well as asking them to get on the scale and keep track of their weight on a pretty regular basis. My tone with them changes here. This is part of their sport, and as a result we must coach them on how to attack and handle it, just like we teach them how to handle going out on the platform and lifting weight. There is no way around the subject and we must teach them that being able to make weight is a very important part of the sport they chose to pursue. Learning to do it in the most safe and comfortable way possible is why they are working with you as a coach. Personally, when I handle these young athletes, there are certain strategies that I use that I have found to be a great plan of attack.
- Get a starting weight from them, set their numbers and give them homework of just hitting those numbers for a certain number of days (4-7 depending on time frame).
- Give them a set day to weigh in the morning and report back, you do not want to hear about weight from them any time before that.
- Continue this process as they move toward goal weight and make adjustments to numbers as needed. Keep this process very objective – their sport says they must make a certain weight to compete, that is the only reason for this goal, period. We do not talk about appearance, abs, legs, arms, or any other physical aspect of what their body is doing.
- Reverse diet immediately after each meet to allow your young athlete to be able to eat as many calories as possible moving forward. (This will help with the next time they have to make weight and will allow them to eat more food on their cut.)
With both of these age groups, I spend a lot of time simply helping them understand the role that each macronutrient group plays in fueling their activity. I don’t preach strict macronutrient timing to my youngsters, or even to my adults (honestly, I feel it overcomplicates nutrition more than it helps anything). However, with the youth population, I want them to understand and learn how their body functions in response to consuming the three different macronutrients in order to make positive, educated decisions about food for the duration of their lives.
Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it." Proverbs 22:6
3) Parental Permission and Education
Although I included this as the final point, this is the part of coaching and helping the underage population that is most important and precedes everything. Before I ever start working or communicating with a youngster about food and nutrition I always make sure I have their parent or guardian’s permission and support. Mainly, this is for obvious social reasons. But as a coach I know the only way for them to be as successful as they can be is for their caretakers to understand the process and support what they are doing. I always offer to teach Flexible Nutrition to their parents or guardians at no additional cost because I feel it is that important for them to have a support system at home who understands what they are doing. Helping to foster an environment where your young client feels encouraged and confident is one of the biggest parts of correctly coaching them. I like to stay in contact with their parents or guardians as much as possible while working with them. That caretaker usually knows your young client better than anyone else and can give you feedback about how they see the impact your work is having.
The bottom line in this whole touchy subject of teaching nutrition to a young, vulnerable, developing population is to make it objectively based and to simply lay out principles. Nutrition, and food in general, is one of the most enjoyable parts of life. It is a social activity, something to do with friends and family, and we must be able to teach a system to the next generation that allows them to enjoy those social events focused around food and not fear them – even if they have strict goals like being a competitive athlete or making weight for the purposes of their chosen sport. As with all things when dealing with youth (and teenagers especially), the more we constantly harp on something or make it a big deal, they will grow to regret it and start to rebel or have negative, opposite actions toward the subject. The more simple and natural we can present a topic, the better! Oddly enough… adults are not very different.