Many young athletes aspire to be great during their high school years in the hopes of playing at the next level. Young athletes train, run, condition, and sign up for additional specialized training. This type of motivation and hard work should translate into bigger, stronger, faster, along with greater success in the athlete’s respective sport.
However, hard work, good genetics, and athletic talent can only carry you so far. Most young athletes stay up late Snapchatting and watching Netflix, getting only 4-6 hours of sleep and then waking up exhausted the next day, rushed with minimal time to prepare for school or other obligations. Naturally, they skip breakfast, and then when 10 a.m. rolls around, their stomach starts to rumble with ravenous hunger and no high-quality snacks or nourishment in sight.
So, the young athlete goes to the vending machine to grab a bag of Doritos or Flaming Hot Cheetos and the banana that Mom or Dad threw in their bag, takes just a few bites, and washes it down with an energy drink. Lunch rolls around, and they consume maybe half of a turkey sandwich with a few bites of carrots and a candy bar. Up next is class, followed by training. Hunger strikes again, and it’s back to the vending machine or some type of granola bar from a friend before practice. Practice is tough, the coach pushes drills and conditioning hard, and water breaks don’t seem to come quickly enough. Practice ends around 5:30 p.m. and the athlete heads home for dinner, which is some type of meat, maybe some veggies, bread, and a baked potato.
Enter this common scenario:
Young athlete says: “I don’t want to eat that, Mom. Don’t we have anything good in this house? I’m starving!”
Mom kindly responds: “Didn’t you have that chocolate milk/yogurt parfait/smoothie I packed you for right after practice?”
Athlete responds in frustration: “No, I have no idea what you’re talking about, Mom. I’ve barely had anything to eat today. I guess I’ll hit up some ice cream and whatever else I can find tonight. Coach also said I need to put on weight, and I’m looking a bit slow lately. I have no idea what he’s talking about, as I’ve been showing up to conditioning and doing everything asked of me. Coach doesn’t even care that I have headaches, and I’m always tired. It’s like Coach just wants to pick on me and tell me to work harder. I have no idea how to even gain weight. I’ve been working so hard in the weight room, and I crush those mass gainer protein shakes everyone talks about. Many days I even have headaches. I just don’t know.”
Sound familiar? Headaches should not be a daily occurrence, and they are often related to insufficient fluid intake, inadequate sleep, and poor nutrition habits, coupled with too much screen time. It is time to slow down and take inventory of what we are doing and how and why we are doing it. A great place to start is with the basics: the fundamental habits that support growth, development, maturation, long-term health, and athletic performance.Headaches should not be a daily occurrence, and they are often related to insufficient fluid intake, inadequate sleep, and poor nutrition habits, coupled with too much screen time. Click To Tweet
It begins with food as energy. As a performance dietitian working with many young athletes, I teach the concept of “eating for health first and fueling for performance second.” This article focuses on fueling for performance. To be a successful young athlete, you must provide your body with a continuously supply of energy that is consumed in the form of calories coming from fats, carbohydrates, and protein.
The Realities of Youth Athletes and Diet
There are a few basic factors that young athletes must understand for you to get “buy-in” for fueling properly. Why? Because most athletes do not think that skipped meals, poor snack choices, and a limited intake of quality protein and carbohydrates really matter. Spoiler alert—they do. All athletes need proper nutrition for building lean mass, achieving a healthy body composition, and having a continuous energy supply for muscle contraction and brain function, while simultaneously mitigating risk of injury.
Many high school athletes misunderstand how many calories they need to consume because of the misinformation that circulates like wildfire. As I have said in previous articles, “navigating the nutrition world for quality information is like trying to drink out of a fire hose. It is uncomfortable and you’re left drenched in information.” For example, a 17-year-old, 200-pound high school fullback still going through growing tissues and bones and overall development will need 4,000-5,000 calories per day to account for both health and performance. His parents who are recreationally active in 5k races on the weekends will need significantly less.
This highlights how individual energy needs are not often well understood. So, how do we get a young athlete to understand the value of eating breakfast and a string cheese or hard-boiled egg in place of those mid-morning Cheetos? We talk about the consequences of poor food choices and what benefits opting for “higher quality” foods can produce.
Some consequences of poor nutrition as a high school athlete are:
- Disrupted growth and development
- Decline in both athletic and academic performance
- Poor focus, concentration, and memory recall
- Increased risk for injury, illness, and infection
- Quicker fatigue and reduced reaction time
- Muscle loss and inability to gain lean mass
- Increased risk for stress fractures and bone injury
- Weight loss and inability to maintain weight
- Declines in strength, power output, and speed
- Chronic fatigue, joint pain, and soreness
If all of the aforementioned results are left untreated and unrecognized, they can lead to much larger implications in adulthood.
Some benefits of proper nutrition are:
- Greater focus, memory recall, and spatial awareness
- Greater recovery and reduced onset fatigue
- Increased strength and power
- Improved agility and mobility
- Greater speed and quickness
- Reduced risk of injury and illness
- Better long-term health
- Decreased risk of depression and overtraining syndrome
You can read more about nutrition considerations for performance in young athletes here. When things return to “normal,” there needs to be a greater investment in having dietitians in schools to work with young athletes just like registered nurses, athletic trainers, and sports performance coaches.There needs to be a greater investment in having dietitians in schools to work with young athletes just like registered nurses, athletic trainers & sports performance coaches, says @Wendi_Irlbeck. Click To Tweet
If you’re a parent of a young athlete reading this, what are the foods in your fridge and pantry? Do the foods in your home contain high-quality protein, calcium, vitamin D, and other essential nutrients? Nutrition is a key that unlocks the door to optimal health and athletic performance.
See the table below for a list of high-quality protein sources and carbohydrates that I encourage my athletes to consume: whole foods, around the clock, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
For additional options on protein and carbohydrate pairings around training, check out the many sports nutrition resources at Team USA. The eating patterns built during childhood serve as a foundation for life. What we eat during adolescence shapes brain growth and development, metabolism, and overall health.
Tough Love with Sports Nutrition
What many people fail to understand is if you want to be great at something, you must prioritize the habits and behaviors that support that goal. If you want to be a healthier person, better athlete, and more studious student, power up with a high-quality breakfast. It is no secret what happens when breakfast and other meals are skipped or when a candy bar is eaten in place of a real meal.Balance is important, but if we know better and choose not to do better, then we are not really living up to our full potential, says @Wendi_Irlbeck. Click To Tweet
As a society, we have gotten “soft” and allowed poor habits to become acceptable behaviors, which prevents greater success. Balance is important, but if we know better and choose not to do better, then we are not really living up to our full potential, are we? What I am getting at is we must increase our willingness to participate in habits and behaviors that support success both in the classroom and on the field. We need to hold ourselves, as well as our young athletes, accountable for the food and nutritional choices they make.
Encouraging water in place of soda is not enough. We need to do better. We need to establish healthy habits, which require structure and discipline. Sleeping until 11 a.m. on the weekends and staying up late isn’t part of a successful athlete’s routine. This article’s objective is not to harp on sleep, but to acknowledge how nutrition affects all of these modalities. So, let’s unpack.
Feeding the high school athlete can seem overwhelming, especially if you desire to also make their choices for yourself. I also tend to work with many of the parents of the young athletes I coach. In fact, many of the families as a whole try to make healthier choices within the household, and our check-in calls are a family effort. As I always say, “We need to get back to the basics, and that begins with real food and preparing meals in-house.”
Some simple tips to get you started: stop buying potato chips, cookies, cakes, doughnuts, and sugary granola bars that are “fake” health foods and avoid the highly processed foods in the grocery aisle that contain no nutrition and an exponential amount of sugar. I am all about balance, but there has to be some accountability. If you keep purchasing these highly processed, low-nutrient foods, they will eventually end up in your mouth or your young athlete’s, which leads to the aforementioned symptoms.
Added sugars in processed foods disrupt a teen’s appetite regulation in general. They can’t crave and desire what they don’t eat regularly. “But Wendi, my kid will only eat cereal in the morning and nothing else.” To this, I usually respond, “What is that sugary cereal providing them as far as nutrition for their brain, bones, and tissues? Is it helping support their health? What about their focus, concentration, or even, dare I say, athletic performance?” The answer is always: “I’m not sure. I guess I don’t know what to give them for breakfast.”
Capitalize on this opportunity. “Okay, now you’re asking the right question: ‘What should my high school athlete be eating for breakfast?’” Short answer—something high in fiber, protein, and quality carbohydrates like whole grains to support energy levels and satiety. Some great options include Greek yogurt parfait, whole grain oats, berries, a veggie omelet with whole grain toast, and nut butter. See other options for fueling up with breakfast via the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.For breakfast, your high school athlete should be eating something high in fiber, protein, and quality carbohydrates like whole grains to support energy levels and satiety, says @Wendi_Irlbeck. Click To Tweet
Breakfast is non-negotiable for any of the athletes I work with. Many express that they are not hungry when they wake up or don’t have time, as if that is a viable excuse to dismiss their lack of planning and priorities. My argument as a performance dietitian who works with a wide range of people is that we all have 24 hours in the day—how we spend those 24 hours, however, is different for each of us. To say “I don’t have time” for something that can help you be more successful at an event that you are so dedicated to every single day is preposterous.
We can’t allow our young athlete to stay up late playing video games and scrolling through social media because these behaviors are linked to poor snack choices. This leads to a poor appetite in the morning, which hinders health, performance, and overall energy levels throughout the day.
Winning Sports Nutrition Strategies
Athletes must shop so they have more fruits and vegetables at home. Your teen is more likely to eat fruits and veggies as snacks if they are cut up and prepared for easy access. The calories and nutrients from an apple will be so much more satisfying and filling than those from a pastry. An apple contains key nutrients and fiber that support satiety and gut health. The pastry will offer empty calories with zero nutrition, leading to some sways in energy due to the high fluctuations in blood glucose levels. Many people fear the sugar in fruits, but keep in mind sugar in fruit is natural and not refined. For more direction on this, read “7 Ways to Get More Vegetables in Your Young Athlete’s Diet.” Keep in mind that a colorful plate is a healthy one, which will lead to a healthier body!
Your young athlete needs help regulating their appetite and hunger cues with mindful eating. This means having regular meal times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner when at home, along with proper snacks around training sessions to ensure their energy needs are being met. Discourage eating in front of the television, while scrolling through social media, or while playing video games. A 2014 study published by the American College of Cardiology found that TV was linked to poor snacking habits and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. There’s a correlation between screen time and low-nutrient food options. Your high school athlete needs structure and boundaries around their rigid training schedule.There’s a correlation between screen time and low-nutrient food options, says @Wendi_Irlbeck. Click To Tweet
Adopt healthy habits within your own household so that your young athlete follows. After a challenging day full of many tasks, it is critical to get a good night’s rest of 7-9 hours. I can’t tell you how many of the teen athletes I work with tell me they go to bed when their parents do, which is anywhere from 12 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. Research has indicated that the hours slept before midnight are the most powerful to support feeling “well-rested,” restored, and overly refreshed. Going to bed after midnight may lead to poor sleep quality, resulting in increased risk for injury, illness, poor focus, and delayed decision-making, as well as diminished performance. In fact, increased screen time throughout the day has been linked to insomnia and symptoms of depression in adolescents.
As we ramp up for fall, let’s talk nutrition for football. Football is a stop-and-go sport with quick and short bursts of intense play followed by rest. The primary fuel substrate for football is carbohydrate along with sufficient protein and overall calories to support recovery. Yet, for so many young football players going through camps to prepare for a healthy season, there is insufficient intake. The football athletes I have worked with typically have a low-protein and moderate-to-low carb intake with high fat.
The challenge is that young teens aren’t eating enough overall to support the two-a-day training sessions, and they skimp on protein along with quality carbs because they snack on high-fat foods or empty carb foods like doughnuts. Doughnuts offer sugar and carbohydrates but provide no good nutrition for a young athlete. It is essential to remind your athletes of the increased physical and mental demands of pre-season and camp, and the importance of proper hydration and replacing every pound of body weight lost with 16-24 ounces of fluid. Drinking 16 ounces of fluid at every single meal is essential, along with reaching for fruits as snacks to also support hydration and quality carbohydrates.
Practical nutrition tips to prepare for two-a-day play are as follows:
- Drink 20 oz. of fluid upon waking.
- Eat breakfast.
- Eat a second breakfast.
- Front-load your calories.
- Meal plan out the week so you have yogurt parfaits, whole grain turkey sandwiches, and other meals set for on-the go.
- Eat four meals per day at a minimum, containing a high-quality protein, carbohydrate, fruit, vegetable, and dairy source. Remember, eat the rainbow!
- Never skip meals or snacks. Soda intake should be limited, along with sugary fruit drinks and other beverages. If reaching for a sports drink, ensure it is only when you are on the field, to support hydration. Sports drinks are not for playing video games or while sitting around watching television.
- Hydration essentials include drinking 20-40 oz. of fluid per hour of practice. Consider refueling and rehydrating with chocolate milk.
What About the Game Day Meal?
The meals leading up to game day are much more important than the pre-game meal. Yes, read that again. If you haven’t been consuming sufficient calories, nutrients, and protein in the days leading up to the game or competition, then that pre-game meal doesn’t really matter. In fact, contrary to popular belief, pre-game meals do little to enhance performance. There are no magic meals. Championships are won in the off-season, pre-season, and camps. Again, the eating habits and behaviors carried out the weeks before competition have a greater effect on energy storage and recovery. That’s why champions eat breakfast, hydrate, and sleep according to their goals.If you haven’t been consuming sufficient calories, nutrients, and protein in the days leading up to the game or competition, then that pre-game meal doesn’t really matter, says @Wendi_Irlbeck. Click To Tweet
The main objective of the pre-game meal is to allot for adequate time for the food to digest. The key for the pre-game meal should be consistency and routine. Eat the high-quality carbohydrates and proteins emphasized in this article. The guidelines of fruit, veggie, protein, carbohydrate, and fluids are the guides for EVERY pre-game meal. If you want more of a visual, please check out the performance plates found at www.teamusa.org/nutrition.
Lastly, the last meal before a game should be, at a minimum, three hours before. Many athletes eat candies and sweets in hopes of that “quick energy”; however, this practice and ritual can hurt performance more than help it and should absolutely be avoided. Just because you can does not mean you should. It’s all about the basics and carrying them out consistently at a high level, day in and day out.
The strength of a building lies in its foundation. The objective of the foundation is to hold the structure above it, keep it upright, and prevent problems like ground moisture seeping in and weakening the structure. A high school athlete needs to view their nutrition as their foundation for health and success. A weak foundation leads to weakening of the structure it’s supposed to support and creates small cracks that can diminish the strength of the building.
If this metaphor hasn’t inspired you, think of it this way: Academics, recovery, sleep, training, and psychosocial are all links in a chain of controllable behaviors that are not only connected, but interconnected, affecting one another. “A student athlete is only as strong as their own weakest link.”
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