Youth Sports Nutrition and Supplements 101

I get a variety of nutrition questions each week from concerned parents asking questions like:
– What should my son/daughter eat through the day?
– What supplements should my child take to “get an edge”?
– Other kids on the team are taking certain “supplements” and are they safe?
– Should my son/daughter drink Gatorade during practice?
– What should my son/daughter eat before and after training?Every parent wants the best for the child and nutrition can be an extremely confusing topic, especially when dealing with high school athletes as they are growing and maturing and there are many different things taking place in their bodies. Below are a few basic principles to ensure that your youth athlete gets quality nutrition and grows to be as healthy as possible.

What should my child eat?

Most parents ask me this hoping for some magical diet or some specific menu plan. In reality, most kids (from what I have seen) have a pretty poor diet to begin with. Trying to change everything overnight is going to be a total disaster and will most likely be met with a good bit of resistance from the child.

The first goal is to evaluate what they are eating currently. Since the parent is most likely doing the grocery shopping and cooking, they should have a good idea of what is going into their child’s body – however, don’t overlook what they may be potentially purchasing/consuming in the school lunch room!

I like to tell people that they need to get back to the basics. The three basic rules to follow are:

1.) Three square balanced meals a day (Breakfast, lunch and dinner).

This may change if you add something like a pre/post-training meal and some kids will probably end up eating 4-5 meals a day as they usually have a snack or two somewhere in there. That is okay! But, if you are not following this basic principle already – IE, not making time for breakfast, skipping lunch of just eating junk food, and then not having a healthy meal for dinner or skipping it to eat a bowl of ice cream – then you are surely missing the boat. So, start with 3-square meals a day and try and make those meals balanced.

2.) Balanced meals are the key!

Try and shoot for each meal to have each of the three macronutrients – protein, carbohydrate, and fats. Meals should not be overly top heavy in one macronutrient (IE, having a large bowl of pasta and nothing else). In addition to balancing the meals out, I tell the young athletes (and the old) to try and eat some sort of vegetable and/or fruit at each meal. Here is an example of 3-balanced meals:

Breakfast

3 egg whites (protein)
1 whole egg (protein/fat)
1-slice of whole grain bread with 1tbsp of all natural peanut butter (carbohydrate/fat)
Medium sized banana (carbohydrate/fruit)

Lunch

4-5oz turkey breast (protein)
2-slices of whole grain bread (carbohydrates)
Lettuce, tomato, onions (carbohydrate/vegetable)
Medium Sized apple (carbohydrate/fruit)
1oz almonds (fat)

Dinner

4-5oz lean beef (protein)
Garden salad (carbohydrate/vegetable)
Oil & Vinegar Dressing (fat)
5oz of red potatoes (carbohydrate)

3.) Don’t drink your calories!

The final rule is a simple one. Try and stay away from high calorie beverages like soda and energy drinks. Drink water as much as you can and save the extra calories that you get from these drinks for whole food that will give you more nutrition and a bigger bang for your buck.

Make Small Changes

As I stated above, don’t try and change everything at once! If your child is used to drinking 3 cans of soda through the day and eating Twinkies for lunch, the last thing you want to do is force them into a plan like I laid out above. Start small and educate them that this is a healthier way of eating/living. In addition, this will set them up for healthy habits as they move into their adult lives. It might be something as little as trying to substitute 1-can of soda for a bottle of water each day for a week or two, and then substitute 2-cans of soda for 2-bottles of water and gradually work from there. Or, try and switch out the twinkie for an apple or piece of fruit every other day for a week or two, until you can swap it out for good.

Set small goals (IE, drop from 3-cans of soda to 2 per day), achieve those small goals and move on. Small victories strung together will lead to a championship season.

Supplements: Are they Safe? Which ones should my child take?

The first thing I will say about supplements is please master the three basic rules first to ensure that you are getting nutritious whole foods and staying hydrated by drinking an appropriate amount of water through out the day.

As far as which supplements I recommend, I think having a protein powder on hand is okay and I stand behind taking fish oil capsules or some sort of essential fatty acid supplement, as we don’t get enough of those in our normal daily diets. Obviously, consult your physician before adding these supplements into your nutritional program.

A lot of parents are concerned about protein powder as if it has some magical properties like taking steroids or that it will destroy the kidneys. The best way I can describe it is to think about protein powder as you would a piece of chicken (or any other type of protein you can think of). It is really just a convenient way to get protein when eating a whole meal is not convenient or possible (for example, immediately following a workout). It is nothing more than protein ground up into a convenient and easy to transport form.

As far as other supplements go, I know creatine is highly popular among youth athletes (especially the high school football crowd). While I think that creatine has a number of benefits, not just in the realm of performance, to my knowledge there has been no research looking at creatine and youth athletes. For this reason, it is hard for me to encourage an athlete to take this supplement, even though many athletes do and have had no ill effects. As stated above, please consult your physician prior to taking any sports supplement. I would stay clear of the testosterone boosters and/or the supplements on the market that mimic testosterone, as the last thing a youth athlete needs to do is try and mess with their own hormonal system when it is in the developmental stages. This is definitely not a safe road to travel. In addition, there are several other supplements out there that claim amazing results. A lot of this is over-hyped marketing, put together to lure people into making a purchase. Don’t be fooled! Educate yourself as much as you can on every single thing you put into your body. Don’t just read the back label or the article in the magazine and assume that this is something you need to be taking.

As always, the greatest supplement you can possibly consume is water!

Nutrition Before and After Training

Prior to training/competition, athletes should have a small snack. The length of time prior to training and the type of food that you will eat can be a very individual thing. I typically tell youth athletes to consume a small snack 90min to 2-hours prior to training. This doesn’t have to be a large 4-course meal, but just a small snack to get some energy into the body. You will have to try things out to determine what works for you, as some things may not sit well in your stomach and may make you feel a little sick during the workout.

After training would be a fine time to drink your protein shake. If you choose not to use supplemental protein or it doesn’t sit well with you (some may be lactose intolerant), then a whole meal will do just fine as well.

During the workout, if your workouts are particularly long and taxing, you may consider drinking some sort of carbohydrate/electrolyte beverage like Gatorade or Powerade. I stated above to not consume liquid calories, and these drinks are loaded with calories (all from sugar). I typically do not advocate these for the youth athletes (trying to push them to drink more water), however if you are an endurance athlete and out logging long hours of training, this may be an option for you. In addition, living here in Phoenix can make things really tough when training outside – especially right now as we are in the thick of monsoon season (lots of heat and humidity) and most high schools are now starting their football training camps. In these instances you may choose to use one of the carbohydrate/electrolyte beverages to make sure you are properly fueled. You may, however, be able to find some electrolyte beverage that are calorie free (they may be in a powdered form that you have to mix yourself) and this may be a better option for you than drinking your calories – just be sure to eat appropriately before training to ensure that you are consuming adequate energy to fuel you through practice.

Conclusion

The real message here is to keep things simple! Youth athletes need to learn basic healthy habits both in the weight room and at the dinner table that will help them grow into healthy adults. The more you can educate them on what they put into their bodies the more aware of their nutrition they will be, and that is something that they can carry with them throughout their entire lives.

Eat well!

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About the Author:

Patrick Ward holds a Masters Degree in Exercise Science. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and a USA Weightlifting-Certified Club Coach. In addition, Patrick is a licensed massage therapist focusing on Neuromuscular therapy and Active Release Techniques (ART). I have been working in the field of strength and conditioning field for over 8 years. I am also a licensed massage therapist in the State of Arizona, specializing in clinical, therapeutic, orthopedic and sports massage. I am certified in Neuromuscular Therapy (NMT), Active Release Techniques (ART) for the Upper Extremity and Functional Movement Screen (FMS). My professional experience working with a diverse clientele includes training and massage therapy for optimal health, injury or post-surgery rehabilitation, injury prevention and optimal athletic performance. I have served as a strength and conditioning consultant for various athletes of all ages and status. Prior to starting Optimum Sports Performance, I was a top-level fitness and human performance coach in New York City, where I also presented seminars and clinics for other fitness professionals. Patrick currently lives in Chandler, Arizona and is the owner of Optimum Sports Performance and the Co-founder of Reality Based Fitness. He can be reached at patrick@optimumsportsperformance.com. Visit website: optimumsportsperformance.com 

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