Sports Nutrition for the Student Athlete

Sports Nutrition for the Student Athlete
Posted on 02/05/2019
Jenna MooreBy Jenna Moore

As the new year rolls in, athletes are starting to consider their performance goals for the 2019 season. While eating better for athletic success doesn’t always seem to be at the top of their list, a growing body of evidence suggests that they may want to rethink their priorities. Not only is current research showing that poor food choices impair athletic performance, but also that individualized nutritional plans can actually improve the way an athlete plays their game. This article aims to address a few foundational nutrition strategies that teenage athletes can utilize to help them gain momentum in becoming an efficiently-fueled competitor for the next level.

To walk through a typical adolescent athlete’s diet commonly starts with lunch, as breakfast tends to be non-existent. Waiting until lunch can mean that some of these athletes are going 15 hours without any food in their systems. Many of these athletes tend to be ravenous by lunch and gravitate toward high fat meals in search of satisfaction. Because fat is a slow-digesting fuel, and lunch is often the last meal that these athletes eat before an after-school practice, these players often tend to feel sluggish or “weighed down” during play instead of energized. After practice, dinner can be one of the most promising opportunities for an athlete to receive the nourishment they need to replenish what they have used up during physical activity. Unfortunately, even with a colorful and balanced meal, it is very difficult to provide all of the nutrients that the athlete body needs from just one healthy meal.

What is important to note about athletes is that since they are using their body at a faster pace than their non-athletic peers, they actually have a higher need for nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and protein. This is because a body in motion uses more of these nutrients to move itself. Therefore, athletes have an increased responsibility to nourish themselves adequately if they want to play their best and also avoid the consequences that arise from failing to replenish their body, such as sports-related injuries.

Nutrient deficiencies (e.g. vitamin D, magnesium, iron, etc.) create stress in the body because the body does not have the tools necessary to operate at baseline, let alone the high-performing level in competitive sports.1,2,3 Stress from these deficiencies can cause inflammation and chronic inflammation significantly increases the risk of injury.4 To put this into perspective, there are 27 vitamins and minerals that are essential for an athlete to ingest from what they eat. While certain supplements can sometimes help, they often times do not contain anti-inflammatory nutrients that foods can provide such as antioxidants and essential fatty acids. This is why a customized “food first” approach for an athlete’s diet must be considered if they want to see the full potential of what optimal recovery and replenishment can provide.

Fortunately, with all of this in mind, there are steps that every athlete can take to improve their nutrition with the intention of ultimately improving their sports performance. For starters, eating a consistent breakfast in the morning can help to ignite an athlete’s metabolism.5 This can be helpful for maintaining optimal energy levels during day and into practice. While a common explanation for an athlete to skip breakfast can be lack of time in the morning, there are many grab-and-go options, such as hard-boiled eggs and Greek yogurt, that are lower in sugar. These options are better than higher sugar foods which can cause energy levels to rapidly crash.

Before lunch, athletes tend to pack snacks such as crackers and goldfish, but these foods generally do not contain enough protein to keep them satisfied in between meals. Therefore, by adding high-protein foods, like beef jerky and nuts, athletes may be less likely to overeat a few hours before practice during lunch.6 Achieving the appropriate volume of fluid for an athlete, therefore preventing both dehydration and over-hydration throughout the day, can also play an important role in reducing the physical strain that occurs in their body.

In summary, the nutritional needs of a student-athlete are significantly greater than their non-athletic peers. Therefore, they must fuel well to minimize inflammation and reduce their risk of injury. They should also consider customizing their nutritional plan if they want to perform at their optimal level, as well as for the next level of competition. By applying practical strategies such as eating something nutritious for breakfast, packing higher protein snacks and knowing the amount of fluid that they need to maintain balanced hydration, athletes can establish foundational eating habits that can help to optimize their performance for the upcoming athletic season.

Jenna Moore is the Registered Dietitian and Performance Nutritionist at Panorama Wellness & Sports Institute in Highlands Ranch. For any questions regarding this article or sports nutrition in general, please contact her directly at [email protected].

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