Sports Nutrition: Supporting Performance, Growth and Wellness in Student Athletes

Nutrition affects sports performance, for better or worse, regardless of age. In simplistic terms, nutrition matters for two primary reasons in athletes: fuel for performance, and fuel for recovery. In student athletes however, this list of reasons grows.

By Jill Lane

Sports Nutrition: Master the Basics

The diet world has made nutrition confusing, when in reality, the biochemistry of nutrition is quite simple. Athletes don’t ‘do’ diets. They fuel. That is important for a parent or leader of student athletes to understand – what you might be doing nutritionally as an adult is often not what your student athlete should be doing.

So what should student athletes eat for optimal performance, growth and wellness? Use the list below to focus first on adding what is needed, not on taking things away (that’s a diet mentality and we’re here for optimal growth).

The priority of importance goes like this:

  1. Eat enough food throughout the day. The #1 issue I see in youth athletes is under eating compared to training load. Food is fuel for the mind, muscle function, and growth in student athletes. Not eating enough robs first from the mind and growth, then from performance…pause and let that sink in.  More on that in the section below. Most student athletes do best with 3 meals plus 2-3 snacks depending on age, training load, and performance goals.  But don’t fall into the old-school way of thinking that since they are ‘young,’ they can eat whatever they want as long as it has lots of calories.  If you want a healthy athlete, what they eat repeatedly matters.
  2. Eat enough protein for recovery and growth. Aside from vegetables, student athletes are often devoid of protein. Protein is not a direct fuel source, but it is a necessary building block. The amino acids that make up protein build and rebuild muscle tissue, mood chemicals, various enzymes in the body, joint soft tissue such as collagen, and much more. Without enough protein, strength can dwindle and recovery from training, illness, and injury can stall. Ideal protein intake in youth varies from 0.60 – 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight spread throughout the day.
  3. Upgrade carbohydrate and essential fat food sources. Most athletes don’t have issues taking in carbohydrates (bread, pasta, crackers, cereal, granola bars, juice, sports drinks, candy). Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of fuel and thus are super important for athletes. Look for where you can upgrade to higher fiber versions like oatmeal, beans, lentils, berries, and higher fiber bars such as KIND nut bars and fiber- augmented breads like Rudy’s Double Fiber. Fiber supports overall heath and makes the energy from these foods leak into the body on time-release, instead of like a fire hose (which can be followed by a crash).
  4. When it comes to fats, make an oil change. Reduce fried and fast foods. Get rid of canola and vegetable cooking oils. Add back in extra virgin olive oil, avocado, raw nuts and seeds, and fatty fish such as salmon to support brain and skin health, keep inflammation in check, and maintain hormone metabolism.
  5. Stay optimally hydrated. Data has shown that as many as 75% of student athletes arrive to practice and training already dehydrated. Makes me thirsty just thinking about it! Why does that matter? Starting at mild dehydration (only a 1% loss/change is body weight), an athlete may start to suffer with poor concentration and fatigue. Since our athletes are students first, this impacts their academic performance as well. Increase daily hydration with fruits, vegetables, and water first – especially during school hours. Sports drinks are earned (more on that in a later article).  Download a hydration urine color chart and hang in your bathroom to help your athlete monitor their hydration. And make sure your team is weighing in athletes before and after training during hot days and/or intense phases of training – especially for those wearing gear such as football, lacrosse, and hockey – to help place hydration breaks and plan rehydration.

Is Your Student Athlete Well: Avoiding RED-S

Athletes are good at training and competing well, even when they aren’t well. I trained and competed at a very high level for almost 20 years with extreme fatigue, irregular periods, and issues with blood sugar and hydration that had me chugging sodas and pickle juice in the middle of the night….but nobody knew because an athlete doesn’t want to get sidelined or give up the starting position they’ve worked so hard for – so they push through under the radar.

To keep your athlete well (AKA healthy), it’s important to understand RED-S; Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport. Simply put, symptoms of RED-S strike when not enough food is eaten to match the demands of training, recovery, growth, and maturation. It is why the number one sports nutrition basic to master is to eat enough food throughout the day. The peculiar thing about how we understand RED-S right now is that the body will use the incoming energy (food) to fuel training and competition first, leaving recovery, growth, and maturation
with whatever is left. What if ‘whatever is left’ isn’t enough? Below is list of potential symptoms of low energy intake or under-recovery.

Beware RED-S

Does Your Athlete Regularly Experience:

  • Persistent fatigue
  • Disturbed digestive health
  • Recurrent illness and/or injury
  • Slow healing
  • Sudden disinterest in sport
  • Irritability
  • Irregular menstrual cycle
  • Poor growth and or slow maturation

Review the foundational nutrition basics, as well as sleep quality and quantity and recovery time with your pediatrician, sports medicine doctor, or sports nutrition professional if one or more items are checked from this list.

How to Talk About Food with Your Athletes: Be a Champion

Often times the hardest part about food is talking about it.  What I know to be true, and what experts in the space of picky eating and psychology will concur, is that the following three approaches make ‘doing food’ a friendlier, less confrontational topic in the home.

First, make it about what your athletes are interested in. They don’t care, as much as we do, about being healthy. So saying, “eat this because it is healthy for you” often times won’t create a change in behavior. But saying “eating protein helps with strength and I know you’ve been working so hard to get stronger in order to win that starting position. I am going to put protein in your lunch each day to help out, which would you prefer…chicken, turkey or beef?” This helps them connect the dots to their acute life goals and puts them in the decision-making equation.

Second, exposure equals preference. If you want your athletes or children to eat more vegetables, less sugar, more oatmeal, and less soda, those items need to be around (or not around) the house.

Third, be a champion for the behavior you wish to see. In other words, you have to do it too. If you want your athletes or children to eat more vegetables, less sugar, more oatmeal and less soda…you have to quietly do it too. A little parent-to-parent tough love – but this is a biggie you can’t skip!

In review: Food is fuel and information to the body. All the pros attack it in this way. Add before you take away. Pizza, cupcakes, and chips are still going to happen, just less often. Do you know what your athlete’s goals are? Correlate nutrition upgrades to their goals. Taste buds can be trained (thank goodness), so be patient. Lastly, how you do your food as a parent matters. I was invited to teach a 3rd grade class about nutrition and when I asked them to tell me what the word healthy meant, more then one young girl raised their hand and said “healthy means being on a diet because that is what my mom is always doing.” My heart broke. They hear us, they watch what we do and they imitate it, good and not so good. Tomorrow you might say something like, “I decided to eat more vegetables at lunch and dinner because I noticed when I do I have more energy to do the things I like to do.” You got this. Go fuel your champion!

Jill Lane, mom of 3, founder of Fueling Champions® has been teaching nutrition and exercise science to pro-athletes, sports families, student athletes, coaches and health care practitioners for 20 years. Some of her current and past clients include coaches and players from the NFL, NBA and MLB.  As a former All-American, Olympic Development Team Member and Division I Scholarship Collegiate athlete herself, Jill has a clear understanding of what competitive athletes require to achieve and sustain their personal best.

Her mission to support the next generation of student athlete leaders (as well as those who lead them on a daily basis) comes full circle in Fueling Champions®.

References available upon request.

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