FILLING IN THE GAPS: SUPPORTING YOUTH ATHLETES WHERE THEY NEED IT MOST – PART 1
They are grasping at straws (pun intended). Sports drinks or not? Energy drinks or not? Carb loading or not? Protein shake or not?
With varying sources reporting between 6.5-7.5 million high school athletes in the United States, we have a huge population ripe for empowerment through accurate health knowledge. The alternative is vast confusion brought about by the powerful marketing arms of large food companies and advice from untrained but well-meaning, friends, coaches, and family members.
“What can my child TAKE to get bigger…stronger…faster…?” This is the question I’m asked most often by the parents of student athletes.
While I always reframe that question to what should the student athlete be EATING, and how they should train, and how much should they sleep – it is worth examining a short list of items that student athletes can safely and effectively TAKE to fill nutritional gaps and potentially improve their performance in their sport and in the classroom. We’ll get to that in Part 2 of this post.
Sports nutrition for youth (and for any athlete at any level for that matter) should have three main components:
1. Appropriate macronutrient intake
2. Hydration and recovery strategies
3. Investigation: the less glamorous but most negatively impactful obstacles young athletes can be challenged with, such as digestive distress, lack of sleep or sleep disturbance, brain health, and nutrient shortages
The idea that student athletes are healthy, well, because they’re athletes, is not always the case. Being over-weight or obese might not be the student athletes’ statistical downfall, but they do fall within the national head counts that are on the rise of youth with allergies, asthma, ADD, or ADHD.
Although there may be some variations based on the sport and the weight of a child, one source says, “Macronutrient needs for child athletes are higher than their sedentary counterparts mainly because of the increased energy demands of their sports. However, the macronutrient makeup of their diet is basically the same with the possible exception of protein.”1 In my experience that is an accurate statement based on the fact that their sedentary counterparts are eating more carbohydrates than a sedentary kid possibly should, which is a discussion for another day!
Another guideline recommends that, “During times of high physical activity, energy and macronutrient needs – especially carbohydrate and protein intake –must be met in order to maintain body weight, replenish glycogen stores, and provide adequate protein for building and repairing of tissue. Fat intake should be adequate to provide the essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins, as well as to help provide adequate energy for weight maintenance.”2
This statement is more in line with the needs of youth athletes simply because in addition to those “normal” effects of proper fueling on athletes listed above (body weight management, glycogen replenishment, and provision of materials for rebuilding and repairing tissues), the student or youth athletes is also still GROWING, making how much of what food they eat even more important.
Where do you start in developing a plan for the youth athletes you train or have in your family or neighborhood?
Get their weight … after that it’s math and being mindful of the specific needs and health status of the young athlete you are working with.
Additionally, I loved this line: “Appetite is not a reliable indication of energy and macronutrient needs.”1
Start with these simple ratios, adjust for max energy output, focus, recovery, and body weight management.
– Protein, 1.5g/kg/day
– Carbohydrates, 2.0-3.0g/kg/day
– Fats, there’s no hard and fast rule here. I’ll give the scientific answer of saying get a healthy source at each meal and snack because the amount varies depending on the weight of the athlete, the length of the training or competition (are we talking a cross country runner or a hurdle jumper?), and total caloric load of the above macronutrients. Many advanced and “in the know” nutrition performance strategists know the asset that “good” fats can be to an athlete’s performance and health (see fats in action here).
I was particularly happy to see this commentary in a joint position between ACSM, ADA, and Dieticians of Canada: “Overall, diets should provide moderate amounts of energy from fat (20-25% of energy); however, there appears to be no health or performance benefit to consuming a diet containing less than 15% of energy from fat.”2 Finally, a slight nod to the less-fat-is-not-better commentary.
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and pasta tend to have their own macronutrient category for some reason within sports nutrition, so let’s do a quick review of optimal macronutrient food sources. True Story: The director of team nutrition for an NFL team recently spoke about his philosophy toward designing meals for his players. It consisted of two servings of protein, one serving of vegetables, one serving of starch, and two servings of pasta. I hope I’m not the only one who had a shake-my-head-and-chuckle moment after seeing the status that pasta has earned – a food group all for itself! To his credit, it is simple and I’ll go out on a limb and say (not really as I see it first-hand in my own business) that student athletes and their families are busier than most pro athletes – so whatever makes fueling simple is often what rules. Keep that in mind as well when working with your youth athletes and their families.
Optimal Protein Sources
Animal sources: these are preferential because they provide heme-iron sources along with the necessary complete amino acid profiles for recovery and growth.5 Chicken, turkey, organic eggs, fish, shell fish, bison, and grass-fed beef, as well as a clean, artificial-ingredient-free protein powder like Thorne FX’s Whey Protein Isolate in chocolate or vanilla are best in this category.
Plant sources: clean, artificial-ingredient-free, plant-based protein powders like VeganPro Complex and potentially a few combinations (to mimic the amino acid profile of animal-based proteins) of nuts and seeds with bean and legumes.
Optimal Carbohydrates Sources
Vegetables (everything from leafy greens to root vegetables like sweet potatoes and cooked carrots), fruits, dried fruits, beans, legumes, whole grains like brown and wild rice, oatmeal, and lastly, high-fiber, artificial-ingredient-free versions of bread, crackers, and pasta if needed.
Let’s all admit there are very few youth athletes and families who are going to go processed-food-free right off the bat, so let’s meet them in the middle with the above list and save for a future blog the conversation around sports drinks as well as gluten (and if there are potential advantages for athletes, even without a sensitivity, to be gluten free).
Optimal Fat Sources
Cold-water fish (salmon, sardines, cod, halibut), olive oil for low-heat cooking and homemade dressings, coconut oil, unsweetened coconut shreds, raw nuts and seeds, nut butters, and avocado and/or guacamole should be in rotation at all meals.
In my experience, student athletes are generally over-tired, under-nourished, and improperly hydrated. Besides the negative effects this can have in school and on sport performance, the health risks are even greater (read more here) . Using the above ratios as a foundation can go a long way toward correcting those needs and possibly the epidemic of health issues kids face today.
We tackled hydration in our last blog. Although using the tried and true test of urine color is helpful, most parents of athletes are not following their children to the bathroom for inspection, but this can be taught to high school and collegiate athletes with the hope they will pay attention. A better strategy might be the “weight test.”4 I encourage all my athlete clients to weigh themselves before and after both practice and competition with each season or training intensity change. Weight lost is mostly hydration and electrolytes. For every pound of weight lost, an average of 16 ounces of hydration needs to be slowly consumed in the hours after the training or competition. Or based on sweat rate and salty sweat accumulation observation, if loss of weight is greater than two percent of body weight, then additional electrolytes and water consumption is encouraged.4 This can be water or water plus a well-balanced artificial-ingredient-free electrolyte blend like Catalyte.
In our next post we’ll discuss recovery and the less glamorous, but equally important investigation of gut health, sleep quantity and quality, brain health, and nutrient needs in youth athletes.
See you there!
1. Spano. “Special Needs of Youth, Women and the Elderly” and Eberle “Nuritional Needs of Endurance Athletes” In Antonio, Kalman, Stout, Greenwood, Willoughby and Haff (Ed.), Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements, pp. 342, 395-399: Humana Press (2008)
2. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2000 Dec;32(12):2130-2145. Joint Position Statement: nutrition and athletic performance. American College of Sports Medicine, American Dietetic Association, and Dietitians of Canada.
3. J Athl Train 2009 Jan-Feb;44(1):53-57. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-44.1.53
4. http://www.nscaa.com/news/2013/08/williams – hydration-and-diet-equation