The way one fuels his/her body can directly impact physical abilities including how the body responds to training (increasing strength, speed, power), the body’s ability to recover from training (less recovery means heightened injury risk), and one’s energy and focus to direct toward performance goals. Many young athletes approach the coaches of Athletes Choice wondering how to best align their nutritional practices with their level of activity and performance goals. The aim of this article is to outline some simple ways youth athletes can eat healthily. Please comment below or message us with any further questions about nutrition so that we can clarify in future articles!
- Choose whole foods over processed options.
Whole foods are food sources that don’t have other ingredients added to them. When one looks at the list of ingredients for these foods, there is only one ingredient, that food. These foods are real food, and they don’t have artificial, man-made additions or tons of salt and sugar mixed in. Because of this, when eating real foods, one’s hunger and satiety signals are more reliable. These foods also contain more natural fiber which is important for moving food through the digestive system, regulating blood glucose balance, and keeping one full for a longer period of time. On top of that, whole foods are packed with essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that are important for health. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beef, pork, cheese, chicken, fish, rice, potatoes, and beans are just a few examples. Some whole food snack options include sliced bell peppers, carrot or celery sticks, cooked meat, banana, cucumber, hummus, hard-boiled eggs, or mixed nuts.
- Use the 80/20 rule for moderation.
The 80/20 rule is a useful way to use moderation in one’s dietary practices. The goal in healthy eating is consistency not perfection. Try to follow the guidelines in this article 80% of the time. For example, choose real food for 80% of your food selections and your favorite more-processed foods 20% of the time.
- Center each meal around protein, even breakfast.
Protein is one of three macronutrients that make up the foods we eat. The other two macronutrients are fats and carbohydrates, and we will discuss those later. Protein is the most important food to include in an athlete’s diet as it is the building material for muscles, skin, hair, nails, connective tissue (muscles, tendons, ligaments, skin, bones), and hormones. It is essential for muscle repair (after tough workouts, training, or matches), muscle growth, facilitating biochemical reactions, and so much more.
Protein molecules are chains of amino acids linked together in various configurations, and there are 20 different amino acids eleven of these amino acids are non-essential and can be made by the human body. Nine amino acids are essential because the body cannot make them, therefore they have to be obtained through the diet. High quality protein sources supply the body with all nine essential amino acids. These protein sources come from animals such as eggs, meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products.
Vegetarian protein sources often lack one or more essential amino acids, but certain vegetarian foods can be combined to provide a complete source of the nine essential amino acids. These are called complimentary proteins and some examples are beans and rice, corn and beans, corn tortilla and beans, and peanut butter and bread. The caveat is that the protein content of these complimentary proteins is still much lower than animal protein, and one would need to consume many more calories worth of vegetarian foods to get the same amount of protein as he/she would from a non-vegetarian source.
In a healthy diet, protein is the center of each meal. One should plan a meal by choosing a protein and building the rest of the components around it. As far as measurements go, a palm-sized amount, or 20-40 grams, of protein is ideal. It is also a good idea for balance and sanity to eat protein from a large variety of sources. About 80% of protein should come from lean (lower in fat) sources and the rest from fattier sources a couple times a week.
For those interested in the numbers, most research suggests that eating up to one’s bodyweight in grams of protein each day is ideal for active individuals (males and females) and those looking to increase muscle mass. For example, an individual who weighs 100 pounds should aim to eat about 100 grams of protein daily for best performance results. Eating more protein than that is not necessary. An easy way to meet these protein goals is to divide the daily recommended amount by the number of meals one wishes to eat each day. If the same 100 pound individual eats 3 meals each day, each meal should have about 33 grams of protein.
Protein powder (mixed into shakes) is merely a convenient way for one to consume protein. It’s [usually] a better flavored equivalent of putting a chicken breast into a blender. Whey protein powders are made from synthesized milk protein and are the most commonly used type of protein powder. Other powders are made from casein (a different dairy protein), egg, soy, pea, beef, and other protein sources. Generally, one scoop of protein powder should have 22-25 grams of protein and less than four or five grams of carbohydrates and sugars.
|Cod (plain or smoked)
Haddock (plain or smoked)
Black Eye Beans
Mince (lean beef)
Pork Loin or Fillet
Salmon (fresh, canned or smoked)
Red Kidney Beans
- Carbohydrates are not evil; eat them in moderation.
Carbohydrates are the body’s energy source. They are the direct fuel for physical and mental activities that require energy expenditure. The difference between complex and simple carbohydrates is the speed at which the body digests them and how quickly their energy is used. Complex carbohydrates are slowly, gradually broken down and released into the body. They provide a steady energy source and are more likely to come from whole food sources such as brown rice, sweet potatoes, veggies, and quinoa. Simple carbohydrates are easily broken down through digestion, and they provide quick-release energy. These come from processed foods like pasta, bread, juice, and candy. Eighty percent of one’s carbohydrate intake should come from complex carbohydrates and the other 20% can be simple carbohydrates.
|Oatmeal (not instant oatmeal)
- Fats are not evil, either; eat them in moderation.
Fats are dense sources of energy (1 gram of fat has 9 calories of energy, compared to a gram of carbohydrate which has 4 calories of energy), and they have many vital functions in the body. Fats help with hormone production, brain development, nervous system signaling, inflammation management, skin quality, and cushioning of joints and organs. The hormone testosterone, which is important for muscle building and repair, is made by the body from cholesterol, a type of fat. Certain fats, called essential fatty acids, cannot be made by the human body and must be acquired through diet. Fats should definitely be included in one’s diet, but the amount should be measured carefully as just half of an ounce (one tablespoon) of a fat like coconut oil contains 14 grams of fat and 140 calories, which can add up quickly.
|Extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin coconut oil
Natural almond butter
Natural cashew butter
Natural peanut butter
Natural coconut butter
Coconut milk (canned)
The amount of carbohydrates and fats included in a meal should start with a good-sized portion of vegetable, a fist-sized portion of starchy/complex carbohydrates, and a thumb-sized portion of fats. The portion of complex carbohydrates and fats can be increased when one is looking to gain weight, after daily protein amounts have been met.