It’s around 7:30 a.m on a chilly Saturday as Griffin Rutherford, a senior at Santa Fe Prep, bites into a banana spread with peanut butter, his go-to snack since ninth grade. He is preparing to compete in a cross-country meet — an endeavor that requires him to psych himself and his teammates up to run a grueling 3.1 miles. There are myriad factors that go into his performance, and one of the most essential is nutrition.
Rutherford has spent countless hours over the past four years honing his running technique, breathing and strides. But when it comes to nutrition, he said he’s not exactly sure what’s best. He took a health class one semester his sophomore year, with a portion dedicated solely to nutrition, but he still has questions.
“Honestly, it was very unclear. … We didn’t learn what was good for us and our needs,” Rutherford said, adding that despite efforts to research nutrition, he currently doesn’t feel like he has a good understanding of the topic. “There is so much contradictory information out there, it kind of makes my head hurt.”
Athlete Lily Rittmeyer, an Academy for Technology and the Classics freshman who participates in soccer, cross-country and track, said she also would have liked to know more about nutrition before ramping up her physical activity.
“Knowing how my eating habits would affect my performance and energy level would have been useful earlier on in my recreational activities. I think athletes especially need to be taught nutrition and health in fuller details,” Rittmeyer said.
According to health and wellness counselor Francie Healey, a nutritious diet has countless benefits, including improved sports performance, as well as sustained focus, attention and energy. Vital nutrients in certain foods promote healthy brain growth, which is critical for teenagers whose brains are still developing, she said.
Healey emphasizes the correlation between mental disposition and food.
“What I think is really important in a health class is for kids to start to connect what they eat and how their mood is connected. If we don’t start teaching kids this, then they go into adulthood and college living on what I call borrowed fuel,” such as sugar, caffeine and energy drinks, she said.
During health class, Rutherford recalled, there was an activity where different food items were distributed and the students were instructed to examine the nutrition facts on the back. His takeaway was that sugar and fats are bad.
Healey said she approaches “food phobia” differently. She urges teens to focus on the somatic aspect of eating — to examine how they feel after eating certain foods by keeping a food journal.
Healey understands that it can be hard for teenagers to deduce what is actually nutritious because they are bombarded with misleading marketing and negative social media influences.
Griffin agreed: “I would like to have some more clear background stuff that isn’t biased from these companies that try to push an agenda onto you. I want scientific facts.”
Healey said advertisers know what they’re doing.
“They work with your taste buds early so that you get the wiring for sugar and you get the wiring for salt and food coloring,” she said. She likened sugar addiction to e-cigarette addiction because the brightly colored packaging targets kids in the same way fruity flavors are meant to lure teens.
Packaging can also be very misleading, she said. For example, some milk brands are advertised as being good sources of D-3, a vitamin that supports your immune system and prevents depression, although the levels of D-3 the milk contains don’t meet the necessary amount. Similarly, some cereal brands and other products are packaged as “whole grain” despite containing refined flours that increase blood sugar.
Healey cautioned that social media has a large impact on teenagers’ body image and self-worth.
“We think that to be beautiful we have to control our bodies to look like that,” she said. “That’s where food comes in. We start to manipulate the food that we eat.”
Certain fasts and diets, such as the ketogenic diet — a low-carb, high-fat diet designed for weight loss — are advertised on social media platforms and promoted by celebrities.While they can be safe to try as an adult for a short period of time, Healey advised that teens avoid these diets because they have the potential to be abused.
“You get into a trance; the diet becomes your dogma,” she said.
So what are teens encouraged to eat? Healey suggested a diet that includes omega-3 fatty acids, which can be found in fish oil, some types of fish, chia seeds, walnuts, flax seeds and hemp seeds. Additionally, Healey encourages eating good fats that can be found in avocado oil, olive oil, grass-fed butter or taken as a supplement. She also noted the importance of B and D vitamins. D-3 can come from exposure to the sun or by taking supplements.
Rittmeyer said she is aware of peers who struggle with nutrition. While she doesn’t feel it is her place to intervene, she said she believes the situation “could be avoided by teachers and programs informing student athletes about their health and how it will affect them in the future as well as nutrition being enforced in lunches served at schools.”
Pam Roy, executive director and co-founder of Farm to Table, a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that works with local farmers to sell their produce, has been a large force in helping the state Public Education Department make improvements to school lunches by including locally sourced produce.
Farm to Cafeteria, a branch of Farm to Table, benefits local farmers by giving them the opportunity to sell their produce to schools. And students benefit by being served fresh fruits and vegetables that sustain them throughout the school day.
“Now with the PED helping out, we are really getting more fruits and vegetables on school meal plates,” said Roy.
Aviva Nathan is a freshman at Santa Fe Prep. Contact her at email@example.com.