It’s About the Kindling of the Fire, Not the Filling of the Vessel: Dynamic and Personalised Approach to Nutrition Support for Youth

In the first two decades of life, youth undergo an array of anatomical and physiological changes resulting from growth and maturation. These include but are not confined to changes in body size, and architecture, including the rate at which these changes occur. Additionally, youth develop key beliefs and attitudes which form the basis of behaviours in adulthood. These fundamental physical, social and psychological changes result from and are influenced by nutritional behaviours and habits.

Adolescence is a period when bone growth is at its greatest and when musculoskeletal, endocrinal & thermoregulatory systems are fully developed. All these developments require energy. However, quantifying this energy requirement is challenging due to the individuality of growth and maturation rates, especially around peak height velocity. Recent work (Hannon et al., 2020) highlights some of the differences in energy needs of youth athletes as they move through stages of maturation, with concurrent peaks in energy requirements and rates of growth and development, between the ages of 14-17 yrs.

With this in a mind and as a practitioner supporting youth in an educational environment, the importance of pupils, and particularly pupils with high sporting loads, meeting their daily energy demands is key. My primary focus then, is to educate pupils on how to optimally fuel and support the process of growth and maturation through nutrition. Developing good nutritional behaviours in our pupils will not only support these processes but will also cross over to influence behaviours with food in relation to the demands of their sport and life beyond sport. In short, my focus is on kindling the firing for learning and development.

With education being paramount in my practice at Millfield so far, two concepts driving my practice have become apparent. They are dynamic and personalised nutrition. A key understanding that I aim to embed into my communication is that nutritional requirements are dynamic not static. As such, behaviours with food should be dynamic and adjusted to match daily variations in energy demands of for example training programs, extracurricular activities and general free play in a boarding school environment. Personalisation of support is equally important, to account for differences in maturation stages, specificity and uniqueness of the sport and practical challenges regarding nutritional knowledge, preferences and needs.

Application of these concepts from a practitioner and pupil point of view can be challenging in an environment which you do not control food availability, quantity and meal timings. Therefore, a practical strategy to counteract these challenges has been the use of photographic food dairies and visualisation of portions to provide education and practical application of a dynamic and personalised nutrition to meet training energy demands and support development. This use of combining both visual and written nutritional support has been effective in my practice so far, empowering pupils with the knowledge of “why” but more importantly to power of “how” to improve their nutritional intake according to their individual needs. The aim continues to be to kindle the fire for learning related to appropriate fuelling and behaviours with food.

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