What Should Young Athletes Eat?
Brian Grasso provides some suggestions on appropriate nutrition for young athletes. The article reflects Brian's findings in North America, but his recommendations apply to all young athletes.
The article reflects Brian's findings in North America, but his suggestions apply to all young athletes. I recently presented several seminars for the Olympic Development Soccer Program in Illinois. The basic topic was youth athlete development and appropriate guidelines for conditioning and exercise selection. The audience consisted primarily of parents of young soccer players with a few coaches scattered throughout the room as well. As is generally the case, the topic of nutrition came up and I was asked to provide three suggestions for parents insofar as their children and appropriate nutrition. Here were my ideas.
Suggestion Number One - Consume whole foods
The highly commercialised industry of food and food production has made mealtime a quick and easy affair for North American families. Fluorescent coloured 'food' can be emptied of a decorative box and prepared by just adding water. Within minutes, the whole family can be 'wolfing down' (as my Mom calls it) a hot, colourful and tasty meal. Of course, it lacks adequate nutrition and full of preservatives, artificial flavours as well as various other kinds of harmful chemicals. But it tastes good!
Over the past several decades, North Americans have gone farther away from consuming whole, natural foods and more towards the quick and easy conveniences of modern food preparation. This has had a devastating impact on the health of our society and will have an even greater impact in the years and generations to come. Even the medical community within North America, which is perhaps the largest promoter of consuming over-processed foods, have recently suggested that a large percentage of the illnesses we all face may stem from a lifetime of inappropriate and unhealthy nutritional practices.
The basic point is that processed foods (the opposite of whole foods) have so much natural nutrition stripped from them during processing and subsequently a plethora of additives put back in. Natural sources of fibre (i.e. bran) are taken from the wheat during the processing associated with making bread and replaced with artificial colours, synthetic vitamins and chemical additives to ensure freshness. This is just one example and, admittedly, I am certainly not an authority on food preparation or harvesting. Think about this though, if the bread is this 'sketchy', what about things like green ketchup or florescent macaroni? I am not even sure I want to know what goes into that kind of stuff!
Whole foods are surprisingly easy and tasty, and here are some of my general ideas and food guidelines:
Fish is grossly lacking in the North American diet. It is a great source of protein, Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, which serve as a natural anti-inflammatory for athletes.
2. Nuts & Seeds
Dietary fat is being shunned to such a degree over the past few decades that folks are now afraid of it. Dietary fat is nothing to be afraid of, but the type of dietary fat is! Nuts and seeds are excellent sources of protein, fibre and dietary fat. Be wary though. I am talking about raw, whole nuts here not roasted, salted, sugared or candied.
This typically gets put in a category with fruit, but vegetables alone are so important that I had to leave them in a section by themselves. Natural sources of vitamins, minerals, fibre and carbohydrates are available in good quality vegetable produce. I feel very strongly that vegetables should be our primary source of carbohydrates. Right now, pasta, bread, cereal and candy are likely our primary sources. All processed and lacking natural nutrition. As opposed to the fluorescent artificial colours within processed foods, the wonderful array of colours found in vegetables is natural and indicate the presence of quality nutrients.
4. Lean Meats
Pepperoni on pizza, meat-based pies in a pastry crust and hamburger patty placed between two processed pieces of bread do not count as lean meats. Chicken breasts, lean steak and quality pork are all wonderful sources of protein and nutrition and the higher the quality of the meat, the better. These are just a few suggestions but do not forget about things like legumes, fruit and whole grains (i.e. brown rice).
Suggestion Number Two - Decrease the amount of the wrong carbohydrates daily.
This is a very contentious issue but greatly related to my points on whole foods. Let me first point out that this is not an endorsement for dietary guidelines like Atkins or any other form of nutritional science that advocates cutting carbohydrates. My main point here is in relation not to the volume or grams per day of carbohydrates one is consuming, but more specifically, the quality of carbohydrates being consumed.
In terms of sheer volume, if you were to consume as many grams (i.e. as much volume) of carbohydrates in a day as you likely are now, but instead used vegetables and nuts as your only source for carbohydrate intake, then you would increase the amount of fibre, vitamins, essential fatty acids and antioxidants by exponential figures.
Over-consumption of carbohydrates is very much a quality or selection matter. Unfortunately, right now, most young athletes are consuming refined grains or sugars as their main sources. Pasta, bread, cereal and other refined grains should most certainly be replaced by nutrient dense and fibre rich foods such as vegetables and brown rice.
Suggestion Number Three - Increase the amount of water daily.
This one is just plain common sense but is still a problem with youth athletics. Without the inclusion of any physical activity whatsoever during a day, the human body is in a constant state of repair and regeneration at the cellular level. Water is both a nutrient and a catalyst for all of our biochemical needs. It is the foundation of life and the substance of which our bodies are mostly made of. When you add athletic practices, games, tournaments or training sessions into your daily habits, then your need for water will increase tremendously.
In my experience, the modern young athlete does not consume enough fluid. According to that, anytime you ingest coffee, tea, chocolate or other caffeine-loaded food, you serve to add to your body's need for water. Consequently, drink plenty of water. Have a water bottle with you at all times and get used to the idea of sipping it throughout the day.
Nutrition is a very involved science and not an 'easy fix' kind of discipline. Starting with these three suggestions, however, would be a great idea.
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About the Author
Brian Grasso is the President of Developing Athletics, which is a company dedicated to educating coaches, parents and youth sporting officials throughout the world on the concepts of athletic development.