School is starting back up, which means I get to be back in schools talking with young athletes about sports nutrition and how food can make them stronger, faster and sharper, and at the same time enable optimal growth, development and performance in school. There is a lot going on with this group of athletes and I always remind them of that. I then remind them that nutrition plays an important role during this time.
My first talk of the school year was last week and I loved it just as much as I always do. I love the challenge and I love talking about something I'm (a) passionate about, (b) believe in and (c) have the science and life experience (before I studied it I lived it) to back me up. As much as I love it, though, I always feel like I'm potentially walking a fine line - the line that divides the side of helping athletes become well-rounded, eating foods they enjoy but mostly focusing on foods that will support their training, sport, and day-to-day activities and the side of propelling them into the extreme, becoming too structured, too restrictive, or fixating on just one point discussed (this is the reason I always like to do follow-up talks and not appear just once, if I can). Keeping this in mind, when giving talks or working one-on-one, I always try to remember or mention the following things.....
It's all about balance & timing of food vs "good" and "bad"
It's important to eat "healthy" most of the time but that doesn't mean a young athlete can't still enjoy his or her favorite "less healthy" foods. I always want to make sure I get the point across that just b/c a certain food isn't ideal for training or competition that doesn't make it across the board "bad" (I avoid labeling foods as "bad" and "good") - it means it's not the ideal food at that time for reasons including: it may cause stomach cramps, upset stomach or nausea during the event or it may cause blood sugar spikes and crashes throughout the day leaving the athlete feeling tired and drained at the time of the event.
to be cautious of those prone to or already struggling with disordered eating
Part of my caution in talking to young athletes about sports nutrition also stem from my knowledge of the presence of disordered eating and eating disorders in adolescents and now in children, and I never want to say anything to offend or set someone off. If one athlete isn't the one with the disordered eating or eating disorder, it may very well be the friend or teammate sitting across the bench. These things are very personal and often not talked about.
"healthy" & "portion size" are a relative terms. Under-eating or under-fuling doesn't make great athletes. it makes great injuries.
I also want student athletes to understand that as athletes they can't assume that their friend's or peer's definition of "healthy" is the same as their definition. Young athletes want lots of fruits and veggies and lean protein and some healthy fats like everyone else, but, for most young competitive and elite athletes who have hit puberty, foods with carbohydrates should be a best friend. On top of that, young competitive and elite athletes typically need bigger portions or to eat more frequently than their friends and family members do due to increased energy and nutrition needs from hours of practice and playing. As a figure skater growing up, there was a period of time in Middle School, maybe sliding into the 9th grade, where I thought less food = better skating. I soon learned, and more on this is saved for a separate post, that that was not the case. I'll say this again, but, under-eating or under - fueling doesn't make great athletes. It makes great injuries.
summing it up
Overall, yes, young athletes want to eat "healthier" foods because these are going to supply them with: (1) ample energy to work their hardest (2) sustained energy for longer practices and maintained focus (3) strong bones to withstand the constant pounding and stress put on them (4) decreased inflammation after wear and tear of muscles, tendons, ligaments, etc. and (5) strong muscles to keep them running, kicking, hitting, jumping, swimming and diving. There is the saying that a sport is 90% mental and 10% physical. I can see the validity in this statement; however, even with the toughest "go-get-em" attitude, an athlete can only get so far if he or she does not have the proper nutrition as a foundation. Yes, this strong-willed attitude may work for a short while, but if the athlete keeps going, keeps advancing with longer practices and harder workouts, eventually poor nutrition (whether that's too much of the nutrient-void foods, too little of the nutrient-dense foods, or just too little food in general) will catch up with him or her. So, yes, there can be room for favorite desserts, chips, french fries, etc., but these foods have to be placed at the right time and these lower nutrient foods can't crowd out the ones that fuel the sport, growth, and school work.
Wrapping it up, this is what has been on my mind this week. Of course, every athlete has his or her own unique nutrition needs depending on factors including, but not limited to, age, weight, height, and sport played. However, at the root of all of my different talks for different teams and with different athletes is the following message:
You've got to get you fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, calcium and healthy fats to play / perform your best.
That doesn't mean you cannot or should not ever include you favorite foods that don't fall into the categories in #1.
Understanding digestion rates / timing is helpful so you know the best time to enjoy those favorite foods that may not be the best fuel for your sport. Knowing this will also help you incorporate those favorite foods that do best fuel your sport, helping you place them at the right times before, during and after events.
Also remember that you're an athlete. If you're a serious competitive or elite athlete, you're using up a lot more energy and nutrients than your non-athlete peers. This means you most likely have to eat more food. Under-eating or under - fueling doesn't make great athletes. It makes great injuries.
So, eat your meals and pack your snacks. Load them up with the nutrient-rich foods to support training, but enjoy your favorite foods along the way - whatever those may be.