Teen Athletes Need Balanced Diets to Perform Their Best
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It is important to note that excessive protein intake will not result in increased muscle mass or improved performance. In fact, too much protein, whether from whole foods or supplements, can be dangerous and put teens at risk for dehydration, put stress on the kidneys, and will essentially be stored as fat, not muscle.
In addition to carbs and protein, about a quarter of a teen’s calories should come from fat. Fat actually provides more energy than protein, making the daily requirement of calories from this nutrient higher. However, most sources should be from the healthier, unsaturated fats such as those in nuts, avocado, olives, flaxseed, salmon, trout, herring, and vegetable oils. Fat contained in low- and full-fat dairy, poultry, and red meat products should make up only a small percentage of a teen’s total fat intake. Because fat is such a significant source of energy, severe restriction is likely to have negative consequences on the athlete’s performance.
The day of a practice or event, young athletes can determine how much to eat based on how much time they have beforehand:
30 minutes-1 hour before: A snack containing 15-30 grams of carbs, with less than 5 percent fat. Good choices would be 1 cup of non-fat or 2-percent yogurt with a small banana or 1 ounce of dried fruit and nut trail mix.
2-4 hours before: A light meal containing 30-40 grams of carbs, with 5 to 15 percent fat. For example, a turkey sandwich with 1 cup of baby carrots or half a whole-wheat bagel with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter and an orange.
4-5 hours before: A large meal containing 50-60 grams of carbs, with 15 to 25 percent fat, and possibly a small snack closer to the practice/event. Examples include 2-3 ounces of baked chicken or fish with half of a large baked potato, 1 cup of broccoli, and an apple; or 2/3 cup of rice (preferably brown) with ½ cup of beans (black, red, pinto, lentils, chick peas, baked, or refried), half of a medium avocado, and a kiwi.
Allison now understands she has to eat well to maximize her energy and performance. Karen makes sure Allison’s day starts with breakfast consisting of a grain, a protein, and some fruit. Typically, Karen will send her to school with a turkey sandwich, a mandarin orange, and a protein bar. On practice days, Karen brings Allison foods such as hard-boiled eggs, bagels, apples, and carrots. After practice, when she’s hungry again, Allison reaches for options such as grapes, trail mix, pretzels, or a low-fat cheese stick. Allison and her mom negotiate, too, so Allison can eat foods she enjoys without feeling deprived, while exercising the most discipline for days leading up to and during competitions. Competitive athletes will always benefit from properly fueling their bodies, but on days leading up to a competition, when performance theoretically counts the most, they have a greater advantage if they’ve diligently stuck to an appropriate diet.
Keep ’em Hydrated
Fluids play a critical role in sustaining the health and peak performance of the teenage athlete. Dehydration can be incredibly dangerous in sports. It is crucial for the teens to be well hydrated before, but they must continue to hydrate during and after exercise in order to optimize their performance.
Water is always an ideal source of fluids. Coconut water is also a good option as it’s loaded with electrolytes and provides a natural alternative to sports drinks that have added sugars and artificial colors and flavoring.
How much water should your teen be drinking?
1-2 hours before activity: 14 to 16 ounces of water (about two cups)
10 to 15 minutes before activity: 10 to 12 ounces (about 1½ cups)
During activity: 6 to 8 ounces (about a cup) every 20 minutes
After activity: 16 to 24 ounces (two to three cups) for every pound of weight lost
Signs of dehydration include dark urine, diminished urine output, lethargy, elevated heart rate, headaches, reduced sweating, muscle cramps, chills, nausea, and even seizures.
Your Role as Parent
What can parents do to ensure their teen athletes maintain a healthy diet? Stay involved. Promote meals and snacks that center around variety, moderation, and balance; have healthier foods available at home and for on the go; provide nutrient-rich snacks and sufficient fluids for practices and competitions; and, as always, be good role models.
It is also important that parents educate their children on all aspects of healthy training for competitive sports, rather than expect the coaches to do it for them. Parents need to be proactive, looking out for signs and symptoms of dehydration, use and abuse of performance-enhancing drugs, unhealthy eating habits, or dramatic changes in their child’s weight.
By helping your teen stick to a healthy diet full of nutrient-rich foods, with an appropriate balance of carbohydrates, protein, fat, and fluids, you’ll give him every advantage to achieve peak performance in his sport.
Nutrition for Younger Athletes
Got a younger child who's playing sports? See Werner's advice on proper nutrition for young atheletes.
Robin Werner MS, RD, was, once upon a time, a teenage athlete herself. The daughter of a competitive swimmer and coach, she played Little League and then joined her school’s tennis team from eighth grade until senior year. She and her husband, Greg, live in Westchester with their three children, all of whom have carried on the athletic tradition with their activities of choice: softball, ballet, and golf. For more information, visit wernernutrition.com or “like” the Robin Werner Nutrition page on Facebook.