“Don’t forget your protein, bro.”
“Did you recover with a shake?”
“No protein, no muscle.”
You have likely heard any one of these statements and/or questions. Eating protein does not automatically translate into huge muscles. Rather, muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is a very complex process that requires sufficient calories and protein, along with two very key hormones produced in the body: human growth hormone and testosterone. Furthermore, muscle protein synthesis requires mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress. To further enhance MPS, you must consider protein and calorie timing, protein type, and carbohydrates. Consuming dietary amino acids, specifically branched chain amino acids like leucine, around resistance training helps to enhance MPS.
Protein is a key nutrient responsible for several biological functions, including the repair and growth of many cellular structures like skeletal muscle. Dietary protein supplies the amino acids necessary for gene activity, transport of biological molecules, energy production, and the synthesis of hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters. For growth, repair, and synthesis of biologically active proteins, a positive protein balance must be attained and the rate of protein synthesis must exceed the rate of degradation. As you are learning, protein is vital to support the unique demands of growth, development, and normal physiological function during adolescence.
Young Athletes Have Greater Nutritional Needs
High school athletes have greater protein and carbohydrate needs than their less-active peers. Teen athletes require more calories to support training demands, proper growth, development, and maturation. Furthermore, we carry the habits built in our younger years into adulthood. It is paramount to learn healthy habits early on for long-term health and disease prevention. So how much is enough? For perspective, female teen athletes need roughly 2,200-3,000 calories and male teen athletes need roughly 3,000-4,000 calories per day (depending upon the individual and sport).Many of the athletes I work with need to consume close to 6,500 calories, due to training load, volume, intensity, and their general day-to-day activity, says @Wendi_Irlbeck. Click To Tweet
Multisport athletes have even larger caloric needs. A teen athlete who may play both baseball and hockey could need upward of 5,500-6,000 calories per day to maintain weight and support growth. In fact, many of the athletes I work with need closer to 6,500 calories, due to training load, volume, intensity, and their general day-to-day activity. I want to empower coaches to encourage adequate calorie consumption during times of heavy training. Check in with your athletes and ask them about their breakfast, snacks, and even what they had for dinner the night before while working out.
Rule #1 as coaches and health practitioners is to do no harm and reduce the risk of injury. There are consequences when anybody, and especially athletes, gets inadequate fuel intake. For example, low-energy availability in female adolescent athletes can lead to short stature, increased injury, delayed puberty, poor bone health, metabolic and cardiovascular issues, menstrual irregularities, and disordered eating behaviors. (You can read more here.)
Carbohydrates Are King for Energy
Carbohydrates are the preferred fuel substrate for optimal energy. Robust research consistently identifies carbohydrates as the primary macronutrient to sustain and enhance high-intensity performance. Official dietary guidelines for Americans recommend that 45-65% of the calories in a person’s diet should be carbohydrates.
Fuel Tip: To ensure optimal health and athletic performance, athletes should make sure that half of their plate consists of carbohydrates. This is especially true for multisport athletes and those focused on endurance. A great rule of thumb is to fill up half your plate with whole grains like rice, tortilla, bread, and oats on heavy training days. A general recommendation for high school athletes is to consume roughly 360-500 grams of carbohydrates per day.
As noted above, failure to consume enough carbohydrates will increase the risk of injury, derail performance, hinder cognition, blunt focus, and limit athletic performance overall. The onset of fatigue and risk of making mistakes on tests or within drills at practice will also increase without enough dietary carbohydrates. My expert advice as an RDN is that carbohydrates are not optional—they are essential. For more information, please check out this article.Failure to consume enough carbohydrates will increase the risk of injury, derail performance, hinder cognition, blunt focus, and limit athletic performance overall, says @Wendi_Irlbeck. Click To Tweet
So, how much is enough? A 14-year-old female athlete, for instance, should consume 2,000-2,400 calories per day, with 225-270 grams (45% of total calories) to 325-390 grams (65% of total calories) from carbohydrates. The dietary reference intake (DRI) remains at 100 grams per day and the recommended daily allowance (RDA) at 130 grams per day for all age and sex categories (children ≥ 1 year). Neither measure is related to physical activity.
The best complex carbohydrates are those high in fiber, rich in B vitamins, and that contain whole grains. Examples include whole grain cereal, oats, bread, pasta, wraps, tortillas, and even oat and grain energy bars. Other examples include fruits rich in antioxidants like blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, bananas, apples, oranges, grapes, and tangerines. Remember, our blood glucose levels drive our muscle contraction and energy. For more ideas on optimal carbohydrate choices, take a look at this list.
How Much Protein?
In the meantime, the RDA for protein is 0.95 g/kg/day for children ages 4-13 and 0.8 g/kg/day for teenagers 14-18. Power sports like football, weightlifting, gymnastics, and wrestling require 1.0-1.5 g/kg/day. Athletes in regular resistance training and endurance sports like swimming, rowing, distance running, and soccer may need 1.2-1.4 g/kg/day.
The bottom line is that athletes need to consume more protein than non-athletes. According to the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine, 1.2-2.0 g/kg/day is the appropriate amount of protein, depending upon training.
A huge part of being healthy is maintaining a varied diet with an assortment of foods. That means it’s key to vary protein food choices to attain plenty of nutrients. Protein sources include both animals (meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs) and plants (beans, peas, soy products, nuts, and seeds).
Beef, bison, pork, chicken, turkey, tuna and other fish, seafood, pea protein, and dairy products are all examples of high-quality protein sources. Healthier lean sources of protein include chicken, turkey, fish, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, beans, fat-free or low-fat milk, tofu, and edamame. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a larger list available to print out and hang on the fridge, post in the weight room, or take with you on your next grocery shopping trip.
Additionally, a 2015 double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical study found that pea protein offered similar effects as whey protein on muscle protein synthesis. However, pea protein contains less leucine per serving than whey protein. So, while you can still elicit similar MPS effects using pea protein, you would need to consume a greater amount of it.
The best bet for this age group is to keep it simple. High school athletes should make sure they eat one-quarter of their plate or a 4-ounce serving of a high-quality protein 3-5 times per day. This is about the size of a deck of cards.
When Should I Consume Protein?
The amount of protein turnover increases with resistance training and may remain elevated for up to 48 hours if the athlete is younger or newer to a resistance training program. Research suggests several benefits to both pre-exercise protein and post-exercise protein.
Be sure to choose familiar foods trialed during training and practices. NEVER try a new food on game day or competition day. Be sure to eat breakfast, lunch, and meals leading up to the competition. If you eat a meal, it should be 3-4 hours before the game, then another meal of foods that are low- or no fat about 60 minutes pre-game. Foods higher in fat and fiber will slow down digestion and cause stomach distress if consumed too close to game time.
Some good examples of pre-game meals to eat 60 minutes out:
- Turkey or ham sandwich with fruit
- Whole-grain cereal in a baggie and a banana
- 4 ounces of Greek yogurt with 1/2 cup of berries
- String cheese and grapes
- Whole-grain pretzels and 2 ounces of deli meat
The key is to consume a little bit of protein and some carbohydrates to stay energized during the game.To stay energized during a game, the key is to consume a little bit of protein and some carbohydrates 60 minutes beforehand, says @Wendi_Irlbeck. Click To Tweet
The body’s ability to recover following training, practice, games, or conditioning relies on sufficient rest and proper nutrition. The key in recovery is to decrease physical breakdown and encourage muscle growth. This muscle remodeling process can be best simplified by using the “25-50-30 rule” that I educate my young athletes on. This means consuming 25 grams of protein and 50 grams of carbohydrates within 30 minutes of activity for optimal muscle protein synthesis and to restore muscle glycogen.
Keep in mind, if training intensity and duration are greater, you must consume more carbohydrates, so instead of 50 it would be 50-100 grams of carbohydrates. As a performance dietitian, I have found the best way to communicate nutrition to athletes is to keep it simple. “If you can’t explain it to a 6-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself,” as the brilliant Albert Einstein said.
Some examples of post-training meals that offer 25 grams of protein and 50 grams of carbohydrates are:
- 1 1/2 cups of Greek yogurt, 1 cup blueberries, and 1 English muffin
- 3-4 cooked eggs, 1 banana, and 8 oz. of low-fat chocolate milk
- 4-5 oz. of chicken, 8 oz. of low-fat chocolate milk, and 1 medium apple
- 6 oz. of Greek yogurt, 1 cup blueberries, a frozen banana, and 4 oz. of low-fat chocolate milk smoothie
- 4 oz. of deli turkey in pita wrap with hummus and 1 cup of grapes
More recovery options are available at TEAMUSA.
Limit Fiber Post-Training
It is important to note that foods rich in fiber should be limited in the post-workout meal. Dietary fiber is indeed healthy because it supports immune health, gut function, and appetite control, as well as preventing type 2 diabetes and decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer. However, fiber slows down digestion, which is not the goal of recovery nutrition. You want to recover as quickly and efficiently as possible to prevent skeletal breakdown.Limit fiber in your post-workout meal, as it slows down digestion, which is not the goal of recovery nutrition. You want to recover as quickly and efficiently as possible, says @Wendi_Irlbeck. Click To Tweet
Skipping Meals Will Stunt Your Growth and Game
Skipping meals like breakfast will hurt your growth and your game. Missing out on protein and general nutrition during adolescence will lead to significant declines in energy, weight, muscle growth, and strength, while increasing the likelihood of fatigue. Does this mean your adolescent athlete should slam protein shakes? Of course not, but they should consistently consume whole foods at regular mealtimes.
While we’re on the subject, I often have conversations with young athletes who replace meals with a protein shake. This increases their risk of missing out on key nutrients for both health and athletic performance.
Consuming good old-fashioned chocolate milk on-the-go can be a great way to increase calories while meeting additional protein intake demands. Chocolate milk is highly underrated among parents, coaches, and health practitioners who are concerned about “too much sugar.” However, chocolate milk offers electrolytes and 8 grams of high-quality protein per cup, and it replenishes glycogen stores and rehydrates just as well as Gatorade but with a better nutrient profile.
Many athletes are exhausted and often have a decreased appetite from tough training. Chocolate milk is tasty, convenient, and well-tolerated, and it makes for a great alternative recovery beverage. There are also high-protein chocolate milk beverages from companies like Fairlife, TruMoo, and more.
I will repeat, however, that a protein shake or chocolate milk will NOT make up for missed nutrients from not consuming regular meals.
Beware of Both Plant and Animal Protein Powders
It seems like every athlete wants to take protein powders. Overall, you should focus on using real food first before you consume a pricey supplement that may not contain desired ingredients. In fact, many protein powders could contain heavy metals and other toxic ingredients. Plant-based protein powders have higher levels of metals than non-plant-based protein powders, according to the Clean Label Project’s study.
No dietary supplements, including protein powders, are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means they have the potential to do more harm than good. Your best bet is to opt for a whey protein powder that has undergone third-party testing and has an NSF stamp of approval.
Taking a supplement or using a whey protein powder without knowing what it truly contains is not only negligent but selfish, as it could lead to you being sidelined and not supporting your team’s success. Championships aren’t won by one player—they require a team, and your team needs you healthy, safe, and on the field. For more information on supplements or to research third-party-tested supplements for safe use, check out Informed-Sport.
Again, food first, supplements second. Supplements are designed to fill the gaps in our nutrition, not to replace real food.
Sample of a High-Protein Day
Here is a sample menu, tailored especially as a high-protein day for competition.
- Meal #1: Two scrambled eggs, 1 cup of spinach, 2 oz. of flank steak on whole-grain toast, 1/2 cup blueberries, and 8 oz. of 1% cow’s milk.
- Mid-morning snack: 6 oz. Greek yogurt, 1/2 cup raspberries, 1 Tbsp. high-protein peanut butter. Another option is high-protein pancakes.
- Meal #2 (lunch): 4 oz. grilled chicken in lettuce wraps, 1/4 avocado, 1 cup of broccoli, apple slices, and 4 oz. skim cow’s milk.
- Mid-afternoon snack/post-workout: 1 banana, 2 Tbsp. high-protein nut butter, 16 oz. of milk, and 2 cups of spinach mixed in a blender with 1 cup of ice.
- Meal #3 (dinner): 4-6 oz. ground turkey, 1/2 cup chickpeas, and salsa in a whole grain wrap with 1 cup of roasted or sautéed veggies.
- Pre-sleep recovery meal or evening snack: 1 scoop of casein protein mixed with milk or 1 1/2 cups of cottage cheese with sliced kiwi.
If You Want to Win on the Field, You Must Win in the Kitchen
Name a NASCAR driver who begins the Daytona 500 with their fuel tank half-full. What about three-quarters full? Athletes who start their practice, game, race, or match with low fuel (minimal glycogen stores) from not eating breakfast, lunch, or other meals can end up having a poor performance. Skipping meals results in poor muscle contraction, slow reaction time, reduced speed, agility, and power output, and so much more.
The earlier young athletes and coaches understand carbohydrate and protein needs, the better off they will be as far as long-term health and athletic performance. Having a healthy relationship with food and understanding the basics is really important. Help create awareness of a balanced plate with high-quality snacks in-between regular meals.What you do on the days, weeks, and months leading up to game day is what ultimately matters. Nutrition is an athlete’s not-so-secret weapon, says @Wendi_Irlbeck. Click To Tweet
Eating one meal—i.e., breakfast, lunch, or dinner—coupled with snacks will help improve your health and sport performance. Never skip meals. Build a plate rich in colorful fruits and vegetables. Championships aren’t won overnight; they’re won in the off-season. What you do on the days, weeks, and months leading up to game day is what ultimately matters. As always, nutrition is an athlete’s not-so-secret weapon. As I always say, “Eat for health first and fuel for athletic performance second.”
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