Teen athletes have a lot on their plate, and many don’t realize that what they eat and drink can influence their performance. Experts say maintaining good nutrition will help keep energy levels up, optimize performance and aid in injury recovery.
Here, then, are key points to take note for adolescent athletes:
Increase calorie intake
Many teen athletes are worried about body image and don’t eat enough, said Dr. Annie Casta, a primary care sports medicine doctor at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami.
“Teenagers want to lose weight, or they want to make sure they’re not gaining weight so they look good,” Casta said.
But growing teens who play active sports like football, volleyball or track need 500 to 1,000 extra calories per day, she said.
Signs that female athletes are not getting enough calories are missed periods, stress injuries or stress fractures.
“A female’s bone density is a little lower anyway, so they really need those extra calories. But many times they are dieting, because they are worried about body image,” Casta said.
Eat a proper diet, nutritionally balanced with healthy carbs, said Lucette Talamas, a dietitian with Baptist Health South Florida.
Teens undergoing rigorous training lasting more than 60 minutes can add in extra healthy carbohydrates, she said.
“It’s a misconception that you need more protein because we are usually eating enough protein,” Talamas said. “It’s more about the carbs that provide that quick energy, because carbs provide glucose, and glucose fuels cells, even muscle cells.”
Healthy snacks include granola bars, yogurt, fruit, almonds, a whole wheat bagel or pretzels with hummus.
It’s a misconception that you need more protein because we are usually eating enough protein. It’s more about the carbs that provide that quick energy, because carbs provide glucose, and glucose fuels cells, even muscle cells.
Lucette Talamas, dietitian with Baptist Health South Florida
Some supplements could be helpful, depending on what they eat, Casta said.
“Iron levels are depleted if they train a lot, which affects cognitive function and metabolism,” she said. “So it’s important if the athlete is not eating red meat or greens, they supplement some iron.”
The same goes for calcium. “A lot of kids don’t like foods with calcium like milk or cheese because they think it’s fattening,” Casta said. “So if they are truly training as an elite athlete,” they may need a calcium supplement.
Eat throughout the day
Distribute calories throughout the day, with three meals and two snacks.
“Eating consistently throughout the day is one way to maintain energy levels,” Talamas said. “It’s not just about what they eat right before practice or the game, because if they didn’t have a good breakfast or lunch, they’re going to feel really groggy and depleted.”
A lot of kids skip breakfast, said Rob Herzog, director of fitness and sports medicine for Memorial Healthcare System.
“That’s not a good start for academics or athletics,” he said. “If they’re not eating the right amounts at the right times, they’re going to lose energy, they’re going to lose performance and they’re not going to gain the muscle that they want.”
A healthy snack an hour or two before practice shouldn’t be too high in fat, so their stomach can digest it and they don’t have any gastric issues, Herzog said.
Forget protein powders
There’s a lot of money wasted on protein supplements, said Herzog of Memorial.
“The word protein is on everyone’s minds. Especially with male athletes — football type athletes —and those who are really growing and want to be strong and build muscle mass,” he said. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there claiming that you need this supplement or that supplement.”
If your goal is to gain muscle mass, the best way to do that is through exercise and strength training, Herzog said.
Research shows increased protein consumption over the recommended daily allowance could be helpful, but most American diets meet that requirement anyway, he said. Even fast food has plenty of protein, Herzog said. If anything is lacking, it’s most likely vitamins and minerals.
“There is no miracle pill or powder that can enhance performance as much as we would love to recommend it,” Casta said. “Pre-workout shakes and protein powders are not necessary… it is just wasted calories that are not needed.”
In spite of what the sweating athletes on TV commercials say, water is the best source of hydration. Athletes in severe heat can drink sports drinks like Gatorade, but water it down 50 percent, Herzog said. Stay away from sugary drinks like soda, and avoid energy drinks, which can be dangerous.
“Hydration is key when you’re talking about performance and recovery,” said Chris Washington, with EXOS, a sports performance program at UHealth Sports Medicine. “Kids are not drinking enough water, or they’re drinking too much coffee, Diet Coke and regular Gatorade, not the G2, which has less sugar.”
Sugary drinks lead to more thirst and dehydration, he said. “If you’re not properly hydrated, your muscles can start cramping,” Washington said. “You want to keep fluids in your body and electrolytes, especially in our climate.”
Kids are not drinking enough water, or they’re drinking too much coffee, Diet Coke and regular Gatorade, not the G2, which has less sugar.
Chris Washington, UHealth Sports Medicine
Herzog said with sports like football and soccer, where you are going to be outside in the heat, the rule of thumb is to drink 16 ounces of water two hours before practice. About five or 10 minutes before the event, drink about four to eight ounces more. During the event, especially if you are playing football with equipment on, drink as much as you can tolerate, usually about eight ounces every 20 minutes, Herzog said.
Post-game, the rule of thumb is about two cups for every pound lost. “If they weigh themselves before and after they go out, they’ll be surprised how much water weight they lose,” Herzog said.
Overall, poor nutrition can rear its ugly head with poor performance.
“They probably don’t even notice,” Washington said. “They just aren’t able to optimize what they can do from a performance standpoint … but with proper nutrition, their stamina would go up, they’ll have more strength, and fatigue won’t be as big a factor. They’ll be able to recover faster from game to game or practice to practice.”