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Weighty Matters, Part III: Help for Picky, Athletic Teenagers

Welcome to the week of Weighty Matters: a website- and podcast- series devoted to weight-related issues that have popped up among the #motherrunner crowd and seem to have resonated.

In each of the website series, we pose the issue and then offer perspective and tips from an expert. The #motherrunner + the expert will then discuss the situation and thoughts on an Another Mother Runner podcast: the two episodes will air on April 26 and May 3.

Because we don’t want to leave them—or you—hanging we will then follow up with the #motherrunners on posts the week of June 24 and a podcast on June 28 to see how integrating the expert tips + perspective worked for them.


Heather, a #motherrunner with active kids, posted this on the Many Happy Miles Facebook page.

I need some "momming" help with my 16 yo daughter and her diet. She's a dancer but *very* picky so much so that I have a hard time keeping the proteins she'll eat in the house. She barely eats veggies. The majority of her diet is processed carbs. I'm starting to suspect that her diet is having a negative impact on her sport/art and I need some input as to ideas on how to address this with her-especially because she wants to dance in college.


“Most teenagers, and teenage athletes in particular, are susceptible to a carb-based diet,” says Jill Castle, MS, RD, the author of myriad books about childhood nutrition, including Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for your Young Athlete. “Their bodies are craving energy, and carbs are a quick pick-me-up. Plus, they’ve learned that carbs can shift your mood almost immediately. What they don’t learn is that eating carbs exclusively may  leave you hungry.”

Here, Jill offers tips for the picky teenage athlete—or any kid that falls into one of those three categories:

First things first: This teenage dancer is an ideal candidate to meet one-on-one with a registered dietitian/nutritionist for a variety of reasons. Dancing is an image-oriented sport, and I’d want to be sure there isn’t something deeper going on besides a picky eater who has a love of carbs. Not only is it important to have a dietitian assess her day-to-day diet to ensure she’s not negatively affecting her health, but as most parents of teenagers know, they are more likely to listen to and heed advice from an objective source.

That said, here are a few more general strategies:

Pump up the protein. Protein, as you likely know, is key for a growing teen and especially a female athlete. Protein breaks down into amino acids, which are primarily responsible for muscle growth and recovery, so having them available in her bloodstream is beneficial. I recommend a protein source at each meal. Sit down with her and strategize about what protein she likes, and how to include them in each meal. If she only likes cottage cheese, eggs and deli turkey, that totally works: buy in bulk and figure out appropriate packaging so she can bring it to school.

Definitely aim for food sources of protein first, but if the protein pickings are slim, consider a protein supplement  (e.g. protein powder), adding it to oatmeal, smoothies or other favorites.

Go back to the basics. All young athletes need to be eating three meals a day. Their bodies need sustained, regular exposure to all nutrients to grow and perform athletically, and all three meals should be a mix of protein, carbs, and healthy fats. The easiest way to cover the varied nutrients is to target the food groups: protein, fruit, vegetable, dairy, and grains. Healthy fats and a healthy balance around sweets and treats is important, also.

With a teenager, that isn’t always easy: Schedules (or oversleeping) may crowd out breakfast, and they may light-load at lunch; teenage girls may eat too lightly at lunch, and experience low energy for the afternoon practice. Subsequently, they may be ravenous when dinnertime arrives.

Break up breakfast. If getting a full breakfast is an issue, start with something easy to grab on the way out of the house: a banana and a container of yogurt, then have them take something to school so they can supplement around 9 am—or whenever hunger strikes. That could be a nut- and dried-fruit mix, a bar with some protein, a peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat.

Double up on snacks. Most young athletes will have two snacks daily; aim for two food groups in each snack. You don’t necessarily have to ditch the goldfish, but add some string cheese for a bit of protein and calcium.. Other ideas: granola and yogurt, crackers and hummus, apples and peanut butter.

Build on iceberg--or whatever you can. When trying to expand their diets, think about building a bridge from foods they already like. Many parents feel like there’s no value in iceberg lettuce, but I disagree. If your picky eater likes it, it’s a potential entryway to additional vegetables. Maybe you could shift to butter lettuce or romaine lettuce; maybe you could add shredded carrots or cucumbers to it. If French Fries are her favorite carbs, introduce sweet potato fries, roasted potatoes, a baked potato and maybe even roasted carrots. I know that may feel like a huge leap, but simply offer new foods and don’t put any pressure on her to eat or have any expectations. Exposure to new foods goes a long way. 

Be patient x 8. Research informs us it can take eight tries or more of a new food before a picky eater adds it to his or her regular repertoire. For kids and teens, I lay out a systematic way to guide kids through food challenges in Try New Food: How to Help Picky Eaters Taste, Eat & Like New Foods. Kids choose three foods they want to try each week. “Try” means just one bite or taste.  Then they can document the flavor, texture, and appearance on a chart. Another helpful resource for teenagers is Conquer Picky Eating for Teens and Adults by Jenny McGlothlin MS SLP and Katja Rowell, MD; here’s a helpful sample of their tips.

Ok, moms of picky eaters or athletes or teenagers, what insight do you have to help tip their diets to be just a little more nutritious?

3 responses to “Weighty Matters, Part III: Help for Picky, Athletic Teenagers

  1. My oldest is a dancer. She danced from 4 yr old thru college and taught till had her baby. We had several issues with diet. They get alot of pressure and see lots of thin people. Try some protein drinks and feed her all the fruits and veggies she wants. Teach her to make healthy options. If she is going to have the stamina to make it thru long routine she will need it. No matter if its ballet, jazz, or modern. Maybe discuss it with her instructor

  2. I’m from Pittsburgh and over here it’s easy to get people to eat salads bc we put fries on them. And we put fries on sandwiches, and basically anything else but, it’s like a gateway to different foods bc who doesn’t love fries?!

  3. I threw out the scale when my daughter was dancing as weight was discussed too often in the studio – amongst the kids AND the instructors were no better. I swear my middle schooler lived on bagels and cream cheese for a year. Got better with age. Tip- don’t make it an issue and they will eventually figure it out. Have all the foods available at your house!

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