I think we could all agree that eating fruits and vegetables is crucial to health, wellness, disease prevention, and overall longevity. A healthy plate is a colorful plate. Insert #Eattherainbow, because if you look down and all you see is brown, your plate and diet are likely in need of a tune-up.A healthy plate is a colorful plate. Insert #Eattherainbow, because if you look down and all you see is brown, your plate and diet are likely in need of a tune-up, says @Wendi_Irlbeck. Click To Tweet
Think of your body as an engine: a “high performance racing engine” that requires maintenance and tune-ups to perform at its best. To break it down, carbohydrates are the fuel or gas for the tank, protein is the oil, and water, fluids, hydration, and the necessary healthy fats that protect and support our engine is the coolant. Our sleep supports the restoration of the engine, allowing the system to reset and prepare for the next day. If we become overheated, the engine will fail.
Building a strong engine starts with a strong performance diet. So, what about those micronutrients? What about those fruits and—dare I say it—vegetables? Fruits and vegetables help support a strong engine by decreasing the wear and tear when the rubber meets the road. Or should I say, following high-intensity training sessions. Most teens, adolescents, and even adults dislike vegetables. Before I lose you, keep in mind that fruits and vegetables have hydrating properties, contain several nutrients that act as catalysts in producing energy, and serve as cofactors for enzymes that break down the glucose needed for muscle contraction. Check out the vitamin and mineral functions to learn more.
Many people have sat in my office or in the audience at a presentation I have delivered and made comments such as:
- “You want me to eat broccoli? You mean ‘trees of doom,’ right? No thanks.”
- “My child won’t eat vegetables; I’ve tried everything.”
- “I have no desire to eat leafy greens. It’s like eating grass, ick.”
- “I have no idea how to cook or prepare something that is palatable.”
- “I personally don’t eat vegetables, so I guess my kids don’t either.”
- “According to the carnivore diet we don’t even need vegetables.”
So, here is the great news. Despite previous experiences that may not have been enjoyable, due to limited ability in the kitchen, unique taste preferences, and/or a phobia of vegetables, almost anyone can learn to consume the recommended number of servings of vegetables each day. What are the recommended servings of vegetables per day? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) MyPlate recommendations, children ages 4-8 should consume 1.5-2.5 cups per day, boys and girls ages 9-18 should eat roughly 2-4 cups, and adults should get 5 cups per day.
What Is a Serving?
- Raw leafy vegetables = 1 cup
- Fresh, frozen, or canned = 1/2 cup
- 100% vegetable juice = 1/2 cup
- Broccoli or cauliflower: 5-8 florets
- Bell pepper: 1/2 of a large
- Potato: 1/2 of a medium potato
- Squash: 1/2 of a small squash
- Carrots: 6 baby carrots or 1 whole medium carrot (6-7” long)
Yes, any vegetable juice that is 100% vegetable does count as a serving for the vegetable group, but it is better to consume veggies as a whole to experience their great digestive properties, like fiber. When you juice vegetables, you lose the fiber, which has many digestive benefits and supports satiety and fullness. Additionally, you experience a larger insulin response when the sugar is absorbed without the fiber to slow the pancreas response. Many people prefer consuming juice or juicing veggies because of the “health benefits,” but there is no concrete scientific evidence that juicing or drinking juice is healthier than consuming the vegetable or fruit itself. To learn more about vegetable juice intake’s effect on blood glucose and insulin levels, check out this study.
Let’s unpack the health and performance benefits of greater vegetable consumption and how to sneak—I mean incorporate—more vegetables into your young athlete’s diet. Similar to fruits, vegetables can contribute important carbohydrates for energy to support your health and athletic performance. Vegetables are a great source of vitamin C, beta carotene (the plant form of vitamin A), magnesium, potassium, and several other vitamins and minerals. Vegetables are loaded with healthy, protective carotenes that are precursors of vitamin A. Vegetables contain compounds that reduce free radicals and exercise-induced inflammation following tough training sessions. Vegetables even offer minerals and are high in water, which can help support hydration levels. They are crunchy, filling, healthy, performance-boosting, and when prepared to your liking, unbelievably delicious.Vegetables contain compounds that reduce free radicals and exercise-induced inflammation following tough training sessions and offer minerals that are high in water, says @Wendi_Irlbeck. Click To Tweet
Below are a few veggies that pack a punch full of nutrients:
- Kale: Full of manganese, iron, vitamins C, A, and K, and phytonutrients.
- Beets: Rich in nitrates, which are converted to nitrites that promote greater blood flow, improving oxygen and nutrient delivery to tissues. They also contain folate and betaine, which reduce inflammation. According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the intake of nitrate-dense whole beets improves running performance due to beets’ ability to increase vasodilation of blood vessels, allowing for greater blood flow to improve oxygen and nutrient delivery to exercising muscles.
- Broccoli: Contains sulforaphane, which helps rid the body of carcinogenic compounds and is high in nutrients.
- Spinach: High in vitamins K, A, C, and folic acid. Known to improve blood flow and restore energy, all of which are critical for athletic performance.
- Sweet potato: Good source of beta carotene, manganese, vitamins B6 and C, and fiber. Powerful antioxidants to reduce exercise-induced inflammation.
Many young athletes may not understand the antioxidant effects from consuming fruits and vegetables, but they will understand “eat fruits and vegetables to give you energy to move, train, and perform with a reduced risk of injury.” Now the ears in the room will perk up. You can then discuss the functions of antioxidants, or you can start by helping them improve their relationship with food and their desire to try new vegetables. Often, vegetables are not liked because they have not been prepared in a way that is appealing in taste, texture, appearance, or smell. The human palate changes as we grow, mature, and develop.
It is essential to work with your young athlete to incorporate fruits and vegetables to support their health, growth, and development. Research also indicates that vegetable dissatisfaction improves with exposure. It may take up to four tries to start liking something you previously did not like. Here are seven strategies to get more vegetables into your athlete’s diet:
- Get them involved. Cooking and preparing meals for at home, on the go, and school requires a bit of planning, and if you include your child in the process, you drastically increase the chances that they will consume their lunch. Start with cutting bell peppers and carrots into sticks. Then move on to preparing sautéed, roasted, braised, or even steamed veggies. Involving them in the preparation process doesn’t just teach them how to cook; they are also more likely to eat something they helped prepare. Get creative and work with your kids to make pasta exciting! Try zucchini noodles in whole-grain pasta, add cauliflower to homemade pizza crust, or rice/mash cauliflower to mimic potatoes.
- Make your own veggie chips! Prepare kale chips or sliced sweet potato, white potato, or even carrots to be baked in the oven and seasoned with salt, pepper, and a flavoring.
- Amp up your crunch game. Serve vegetables like carrots, sugar snap peas, sliced bell peppers, and/or cucumbers with hummus, low-fat ranch dressing, or nut butter.
- Create a baked potato bar! Use one large baked potato and load it up with broccoli and low-fat cheese, sliced turkey, and salsa. Not only is this a fun and creative way to mix things up, but it gives your teen athlete the freedom of choice. Offer up a variety of fixings to beef up the potato.
- Veggies at breakfast. Egg veggie muffins are a great way to ensure breakfast is consumed by having something for on-the-go that is full of protein, nutrients, and plenty of fiber from the veggies you can barely taste. Create a large veggie-egg scramble in a bowl, portion it into muffin tins, and bake.
- Skewer it and combine it with a dip. There is something magical about a skewer that causes it to increase the aesthetic of ordinary foods. Teens love to interact with their food, and research shows that teens eat more veggies when they come with a dip. Dips can also serve as a great way to enhance the nutrient composition of the meal or snack. Create a spicy hummus dip with precooked tomatoes, red and green bell peppers, cheese, onions, steak, and chicken. Consider offering a low-fat ranch dip or tomato-based BBQ sauce with it.
- Blended. Use a vegetable that is not bitter in taste. Many leafy greens, like spinach and kale, blend quite well with blueberries, cow’s milk, yogurt, chia, and a high-quality whey protein powder for a power meal. Try other veggies like cucumbers, beets, canned pumpkin, squash, carrot, and sweet potato. Frozen zucchini, with its creamy texture and high nutrient profile, is also a great smoothie addition. Zucchini offers anti-inflammatory properties, promotes digestion, and is rich in potassium, folate, vitamin B6, and riboflavin.
- You can cut down on food waste by chopping up and freezing not only veggies but fruits and placing them in freezer bags for smoothies.
- Another great way to save time in the morning is to prep smoothies in gallon freezer bags on Sunday to have them ready to go for the week. This helps athletes start the day off with a high-quality breakfast and get those veggies into their diet.
The more involved an athlete is in their sport, the more they must make the connection between eating for health and athletic performance. Training is very taxing on the nervous system. Young athletes who fail to prioritize a healthy eating routine could be sidelined with injury or illness.
Nutrition should support health, wellness, and optimal performance, with injury prevention a top priority. Good nutrition provides the building blocks to support growth, development, and maturation, but great nutrition is essential for attaining maximal athletic performance. Even the most skilled athletes rely upon a continuous supply of nutrients to maintain strength and stamina and to recover properly and fully between training sessions and competition. A driver won’t be confident in making a long trip if they’ve been using cheap gas and oil and putting inadequate fluids into the engine.Nutrition can make a good athlete great or a great athlete good. Athletes should always view nutrition as their secret weapon to outcompeting their competition, says @Wendi_Irlbeck. Click To Tweet
Young athletes who feel confident and energized, and who have maintained their engines leading into game day, will be most successful. The last thing you want is a warning light to come on and a crash to happen in your engine/body. Keep the body full, hydrated, and tuned up to prevent fatigue, weight loss, muscle soreness, injury, loss of mental focus, and decline in performance. Regardless of skill level, hard work, and strength and conditioning program, there is no way to offset poor nutritional choices.
Nutrition can make a good athlete great or a great athlete good. Athletes should always view nutrition as their secret weapon to outcompeting their competition.
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