Syndicated from AthleticManagement.com with permission.
Factoring in a busy lifestyle, puberty, and the pressure to look a certain way, the nutritional considerations of high school athletes differ from other age groups. Our expert serves up advice.
By Emily Edison
The challenges are numerous. They have hectic schedules, possess an aversion to breakfast, and combine socializing with eating junk food. They inhabit bodies that are rapidly changing and they tend not to take responsibility for their food choices.
I’m talking about high school athletes (who else?), which can be one of the toughest populations to design effective nutrition programs for. They want to be the best they can be at their sport, but they struggle with embracing good nutritional practices.
The available research on nutrition for high school athletes supports a meal plan that incorporates eating multiple times a day and balancing macronutrients to maintain performance. It also requires consuming a lot of calories and limiting packaged food in favor of dreaded vegetables and whole grains.
How can you help them follow such guidelines? I’ve been working to answer this question for the past 10 years in my role as coordinator for the Washington Interscholastic Nutrition Forum (WINForum), a science based sports nutrition resource geared toward high school athletes, coaches, athletic support staff, and parents. The keys to progress, I’ve found, are explaining the basics and giving them specific fueling strategies.
When it comes to macronutrients like carbohydrates, protein, and fat, it’s important that high school athletes are getting adequate intake. To start, they should get more than half of their daily calories from high-quality carbohydrates, such as grains, fruits, and dairy.
Unfortunately, this does not always happen because many high school athletes misunderstand carbohydrates. They are quick to adopt fad diets that restrict gluten or cut out valuable sources of carbohydrates such as bread, rice, and pasta. Of course, any athletes with medically diagnosed conditions, like Celiac disease, should stay away from gluten. But for the rest of the population, carbohydrates play a valuable role in their growth and performance.
Protein also needs to be a significant component of a high school athlete’s diet to maximize muscle growth and repair. Generally, teenage athletes require between .7 and .9 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight each day. Because the body can only process about 25 grams of protein per feeding interval, athletes should focus on consuming small, high-quality doses throughout the day. Dairy, eggs, meat, fish, tofu, edamame, and soy milk are all high-quality sources.
Additionally, new research suggests that a pre-bed snack consisting of 20 to 25 grams of high-quality protein can help the body assimilate muscle tissue during sleep. Acquiring muscle while they sleep? This should be an easy sell to high school athletes.
It can be hard for teenagers to figure out how to consume protein throughout the day, so I find it helpful to provide them with ideas and examples. Here’s a sample eating plan I drew up for Sara, a 16-year-old, 5-foot-11-inch, 150-pound basketball player. She needed 120 grams of protein per day to maintain stamina and gain muscle during her offseason training.
Breakfast: Two-egg scramble on two pieces of toast with avocado and tomato and eight ounces of milk = 24 grams of protein.
Snack: Six ounces of Greek yogurt and fruit = 12 grams.
Lunch: Three ounces of tuna on two slices of bread, granola bar, carrots and hummus, and fruit = 24 grams.
Pre-practice snack: Half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a fruit leather = 7 grams.
Post-practice snack: 12 ounces of chocolate milk = 12 grams.
Dinner: Three-ounce portion of grilled pork tenderloin, steamed broccoli, baked sweet potato, and fruit salad with yogurt = 25 grams.
Pre-bed snack: Cottage cheese and fruit = 15 grams.
Finally, high school athletes need fat— the good kind. Be sure to educate them on the importance of consuming healthy fats from fish, nuts, vegetable oils (e.g., olive and canola), and avocados. These support energy, muscle growth, immune function, and recovery
TAILORED TO TEENS
In my years of working with high school athletes, I’ve learned to conquer the three main roadblocks of getting them to fuel properly. The first is convincing them to eat a quality breakfast.
I’ve yet to meet a teenager who willingly wakes up earlier than they absolutely have to, so it can be difficult to convince high school athletes that consuming a morning meal is more important than a few extra minutes of sleep. It helps to explain that those who skip breakfast won’t have enough gas in the tank for a focused afternoon practice. This missing fuel can lead to muscle loss—not to mention the potential loss of a starting spot on a team.
Two other ways I’ve had success getting athlete buy-in are through visual aids and by organizing team breakfasts. I use Pinterest to create visual boards that I share with athletes, so they can see how easy it is to make a microwave egg sandwich or toaster waffle “Big Mac” (layer toaster waffles with peanut butter and bananas). For team breakfasts, I suggest making oatmeal in a large slow cooker and assigning players to bring their favorite toppings, such as nuts, granola, milk, and fruit.
Just because breakfast is the most important meal of the day, doesn’t mean it has to be the most complicated. There are tons of quick, high-carbohydrate, moderate-protein options that will keep athletes energized and their muscle tissue intact. Some I recommend are a bagel with eggs, a banana, and milk; yogurt, oatmeal, and an orange; and waffles with peanut butter and strawberries.
You’ll notice that none of my go-to options include a bowl of cereal. This common breakfast item for high schoolers is often loaded with sugar and rarely provides long-lasting energy. Advise athletes to ditch their corn flakes and honey-nut O’s for something more substantial. If they must have cereal in the mornings, it should serve as an appetizer to a heartier breakfast.
The second challenge is getting high school athletes to snack throughout the day. Approximately 25 to 30 percent of their total calories should be consumed after waking up and prior to lunch. For the athlete who needs 3,000 calories per day, this means 750 to 1,000 calories should come in the form of breakfast and a morning snack.
Snacks for the rest of the day should contain carbohydrates for energy and protein for repairing muscles and keeping athletes full. Since time between classes is short and many schools limit eating and drinking, good snack options should be nonperishable and easy to store in lockers or book bags. One of my clients, Luke, a freshman cross country runner, recently learned the benefits of all-day fueling. When we started working together, Luke complained of fatigue and felt his performance was lacking. His eating habits reflected, well, a typical high schooler’s. His breakfast consisted of one bowl of cereal (“if there was time”). Lunch was finely crafted cafeteria pizza or chicken nuggets, chips, fruit snacks, and a carbonated drink, and he capped off the day with a home-cooked dinner after practice.
Together, Luke and I developed a performance nutrition game plan that better suited his dietary needs. Here’s what it looked like:
Breakfast: Waffles with peanut butter and bananas, yogurt, and coffee
Snack: Trail mix Lunch: Sandwich, veggies, fruit, goldfish crackers, and a granola bar
Pre-practice snack: Dried fruit and peanut butter pretzels
Post-practice snack: Chocolate milk and an energy bar
Dinner: Grilled fish, veggies, salad, bread, and milk
Pre-bed snack: Peanut butter and jelly sandwich with fruit.
After a short time practicing his new meal plan, Luke reported significant improvements in his performance. He broke two freshman school records, made first team all-freshman in his conference, competed in the state championship meet, and is now ranked nationally.
Finally, the third challenge of working with teenage athletes is accepting that they won’t always make healthy choices. That’s actually okay, as good nutrition doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Creating rules like “no sweets” or “no fries” sets athletes up for failure and increases the likelihood of binge eating and secretive eating behavior.
Instead, try to balance high-performance fueling with realistic expectations. I recommend high school athletes follow the 80-20 rule. If they focus on high-performance foods 80 percent of the time, 20 percent is left for eating “cheat” foods.
I also tell athletes to use some of their favorite treats to fuel performance. For example, if an athlete loves her dad’s chocolate chip cookies, I suggest including them as a pre-practice snack with milk. This way, her body can use the carbohydrates and protein for energy and muscle growth, and she feels guilt-free about her choice.
OUT TO EAT
Between Friday night pizza with friends and stopping for dinner when traveling to away games, high school athletes go out to eat a lot. A few easy tips can help them stick to their nutritional game plans, even when their meals are handed out a drive-through window.
The following terms generally indicate high-performance food choices when eating out: broiled, steamed, poached, gardenfresh, in its own juice, tomato sauce, marinara sauce, roasted, wood-fired, stir-fried, and grilled. Wraps, sandwiches, and baked potatoes are often good choices—just lay low on sauces and dressings. Where is fat hidden? Watch for words like mayo, aioli, au gratin, creamed, creamy, crispy, deep-fried, and gravy.
At typical teen hangouts like pizza joints, fast food restaurants, and movie theaters, my advice is to limit fat intake whenever possible. When ordering a pizza, athletes should select lower fat toppings like ham, pineapple, veggies, and chicken sausage, and order the pie with half the amount of cheese. At fast food restaurants, I tell athletes to follow a “pick-a-fat” method—they can have avocado or mayonnaise on a sandwich but not both. And at the movies, they should aim for “healthier” snacks like pretzel bites, trail mix, or chocolate-covered raisins as alternatives to popcorn and candy.
Fueling while traveling for away games or weekend-long tournaments can bring additional challenges for high school athletes, as they aren’t always in control of when or where they eat. Remind them that foods high in fat delay digestion and slow the passage of high-energy carbohydrates to the body’s muscles and liver. If food is still sitting in an athlete’s stomach come game time, it hasn’t been converted into energy to fuel muscles for optimum performance.
It takes at least three hours to digest a regular meal, so if there is less than two hours before a contest, have athletes try one of the following mini-meals:
- Fruit and dairy-based smoothies
- Turkey sandwich with mustard and lettuce
- Instant breakfast drinks with fruit
- Low-fat chicken wraps
- Burrito minus the sour cream and guacamole
- Bowl of cereal with milk and fruit
- Dry cereal and yogurt.
LOSING & GAINING
High school athletes do a lot of looking in the mirror, and they aren’t always happy with what they see. Like most teenagers, high school athletes can struggle with selfesteem, and some may want to make their bodies look a certain way through fat loss or muscle gain. It’s important that they pursue either option in a healthy manner.
Athletes’ weight and body composition desires are influenced by coaches, athletic trainers, media, teammates, parents, and their own athletic and aesthetic goals. These influences and pressures can tempt young athletes to restrict calories and eliminate food groups in order to lose weight.
I recently worked with a high school swimmer, Ciera, who wanted to lose weight after she heard her coach say that dropping a “few pounds” can help athletes swim faster. She quickly put his blanket statement of, “Stop eating sweets to lose weight,” into action.
Ciera removed all things with sugar in them from her diet, including her pre-practice snacks, which cut about 800 calories from her daily intake. The frequent praise she received on her appearance once she started losing weight encouraged her to continue with her calorie restriction. She created a new rule, “No White at Night,” and cut out all carbohydrates that were white, such as bread, pasta, and rice.
For an athlete with extremely high carbohydrate needs like Ciera, restricting these foods can lead to low energy availability, amenorrhea, fear of eating with friends and teammates, and the potential for developing an eating disorder. With a starting body composition of 19 percent body fat (already low for a teen swimmer), Ciera did not need to lose a few pounds, and the calorie restriction was too great for her to maintain muscle and bone mass, as well as energy.
While I worked alongside Ciera’s physician and therapist to adjust her eating habits, she took a break from competition. After six months, she was able to face her fears around eating, get back to a healthy, strong weight, and gradually return to the pool. She is now swimming faster than ever.
To prevent a frustrating and potentially damaging battle against the scale, encourage athletes to ask themselves three important questions before they start a weight-loss plan:
Why do I want to lose weight? There are many reasons athletes think they need to lose weight, and improving their overall health is not typically one of them. Some think it will increase their athletic performance, but many are fueled by a desire to look “better.” As Ciera’s case shows, calorie restriction for the wrong reason can be dangerous.
Do I need to lose weight? Athletes frequently hear that losing weight improves sports performance, but that is not always the case. In many circumstances, cutting calories can lead to nutrient deficiencies, muscle loss, and performance declines if energy needs are not met.
Communicating best practices and choices for an athlete’s health and performance should be a “team” effort that includes coaches, athletic trainers, parents, nutritionists, and family physicians. This will help ensure athletes reach their goals without compromising well-being.
Is this the right time to lose weight? Optimal timing for weight loss is in the offseason to ensure it has minimal effects on performance. In addition, periods of high stress (e.g., finals weeks, family conflicts) and times of growth (puberty) can make weight loss more difficult to attain.
There are a few select situations where fat loss could be appropriate for a young athlete: if they have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or type 2 diabetes, or when injuries occur due to excessive weight. In these instances, the best way to lose body fat while preserving muscle is to focus on eating the most when the body is active and consuming less when the body is at rest. Weight-loss athletes should also fuel every three to four hours, eating smaller meals more frequently.
Learning to be self-aware of hunger and satiety can help athletes stick to this fueling schedule. Remind them to listen to their bodies for true hunger cues, such as a growling stomach. Some may benefit from keeping a hunger and fullness chart (rating hunger and fullness on a scale of one to 10 throughout the day) or setting an alarm on their phones to eat every few hours.
High school athletes looking to gain weight may think their road has to be paved with muscle-building supplements. Contrary to popular belief, simply consuming extra protein in the form of powders and pills and hitting the gym on occasion is not enough to gain muscle. To see results, high-quality protein must be consumed in multiple small portions (20 to 25 grams) throughout the day and combined with a well-planned strength program. I advise a three-step “Ready, Set, Go,” approach when working with athletes who are looking to increase muscle mass:
Ready: Have athletes start a strength based, sport-specific lifting program designed to maximize muscle gain. Then, create an eating plan to support growth that includes a meal-snack-meal-snack pattern and caloric distribution spread around practices and games.
Set: Be realistic when helping athletes set goals for muscle gain. A good target is to add 400 to 500 calories per day, which will build half a pound to a pound of muscle per week.
Go: Provide consistent support for the athlete. Advise them to fuel during training by consuming extra energy sources.
It is vital to remind high school athletes about the importance of recovery and repetition in a muscle-gaining program. Encourage a recovery snack after each training session that includes carbohydrate and protein. Good options are chocolate milk, yogurt and cereal, banana and peanut butter wrap, frozen yogurt, or a protein/fruit smoothie. Stress that staying consistent with eating and training habits will ultimately help them reach their goals.
While there are roadblocks to overcome, engaging high school athletes in sports nutrition can be rewarding and effective. Building a solid nutrition game plan in their teens will help them continue to enhance performance as they move along in sport.