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  • Writer's pictureErin Brealey

Nutrition for the active teen

If you have a teenager who participates in sports or dancing, you probably want to make sure you're providing all the fuel they need to be their best.

Active teens are a unique bunch. Not only do they require nutrition for their sport or dancing, they are also busy at school and are in a time of significant growth and development so they need energy to ensure they can focus at school and reach their potential on all fronts.

Keeping this in mind, let's look at some of the key nutrients for active young people in this age group (12-18):

Carbohydrates: Carbs are a teenager's best friend! They provide the energy needed for physical growth and development. In addition, carbohydrates are absolutely the best energy source for learning because the brain will only use carbs as its fuel source. On top of all this, carbohydrate foods are crucial to provide both the energy to perform sporting activities and are a very important piece of the puzzle to recover after activity.

Sources: grain foods such as bread, crackers, wraps, cereals, rice, pasta; potatoes, sweet potatoes.

Protein: Protein foods are important as they provide the building blocks for growth and quality recovery after sport. A great recovery meal will be a combo of carbohydrate and protein foods. It is also important to remember that your young athlete should ideally be having small serves of protein foods across the day, instead of one large serve at dinner to derive the greatest benefits.

Sources: red and white meat, eggs, dairy foods, lentils, chickpeas, canned beans, tofu.

Iron: particularly for girls, but often forgotten important nutrient for boys.

Why is it important? Iron is the element that ensures oxygen is transported to all the tissues in the body, not having enough can reduce the body's ability to move oxygen around the body efficiently. Iron also plays a role in red blood cell production and immune function.

Sources: red meat, eggs, and for those who may not eat meat and/or eggs; lentils, green leafy veg such as spinach or silverbeet, tofu and fortified cereals such as WeetBix.


Why is it important? Adolescence is a significant period of bone growth and general development. Calcium is required for bone growth and maintaining healthy teeth as it is the key component of bone tissue and tooth enamel. Calcium is also used by muscles when they contract, so kids doing sport need to be getting enough.

Sources: Milk and dairy foods, fortified soy and cereal products, fortified almond milk, sardines and salmon with bones.

Vitamin D:

Why is it important? Vitamin D helps the body to absorb calcium properly, it also aids in immune function and is important for muscle strength.

Sources: Sunlight - the body converts sunlight absorbed via the skin into Vitamin D to be used for the above functions.

Hydration: while not a 'nutrient', it is important to remember fluids as well as foods for a healthy active adolescent. Teens are at a greater.risk of heat related illnesses during sport, so making sure they start out hydrated and have strategies to maintain hydration during and after training and events reduces these risks.

Strategies to reduce risk if heat related problems include providing cold fluids during and after sport, providing shade and/or fans at events, rest intervals and cold/ice towels.

Water is the drink of choice, sports drinks are not necessary for young people unless they are doing more than 90 minutes of prolonged activity. This is because they have a lower sweat rate than adults so do not need the extra electrolytes or sugar found in sports drinks. The exception to the water rule is milk as a recovery drink as it provides good carbohydrates and protein, as well as a good dose of calcium!

Practical tips

Energy providing snacks:

  • Fruit & grain/muesli bars

  • Toast or crumpets with jam, honey, Vegemite or natural peanut butter

  • Wheat or rice crackers with low fat dip or cheese

  • Raisin toast

  • Fresh or canned fruit

After exercise recovery snacks:

  • A milk or fortified soy drink (milk poppers and yes even chocolate milk. Milk with lower sugar Milo is a good tasty option too!

  • Yoghurt with muesli/cereal and/or fruit

  • Chicken/other meat and salad sandwich or wrap

  • Tuna and crackers

Family-friendly meals:

  • Pasta with Bolognese-style sauce with added chopped veggies such as peas, carrot, celery, spinach. Try adding some drained canned lentils to the sauce for extra veggie and fibre boost!

  • Chicken or pork stir fry with lots of veggies on rice or noodles.

  • Homemade burritos: wrap cooked chicken, beef or black beans with cheese, salsa, salad vegetables and a dollop of light sour cream or avocado.

  • Breakfast smoothies: Greek yoghurt, milk of your choice, banana or other fruit, rolled oats and honey or maple syrup.

  • Frittatas with veggies and feta cheese

The bottom line:

When it comes to ensuring good nutrition across the week, aiming to meet the general Australian Dietary Guidelines is really the way to go. Balancing plates at main meals is an easy option to,

Aiming to have carb foods, protein foods and vegetables/legumes each make up 1/3 of an active teen's plate is a pretty easy way to think of it.

Providing good nutrition doesn't have to be complicated for young active people. Using "real food" and not supplements is the way to go.


If you'd like more information, feel free to drop me a message via this site. Useful resources are also available at


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