Nutrition and the Young Athlete
Everyone eats. And we are what we eat—or so the saying goes. Of course not literally. I mean I know people who love bananas, but I have yet to see a human turn into a walking, talking banana. Still, the old adage is true. At least in theory.
If you eat nutrient-rich whole foods, your body and mind is relatively well-fueled, healthy, strong and full of energy. If you eat dull, insalubrious and unhealthy foods, you’re more likely to be lethargic and lackluster. But knowing the benefits of eating well doesn’t always provide enough motivation to do so, especially for today’s youth, athlete or not. And while proper nutrition is important for everyone—no matter age or activity level—it is especially crucial for young athletes.
Parents play a key position
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck knows all too well how nutrition impacts performance, both on and off the field.
“Food,” he says, “can give you an advantage or disadvantage. I know when I’ve had a bad meal and how it makes me feel the next day.” But although Luck ate well as a child, it wasn’t until college that he started to become conscious of the types of foods he ate and the repercussions.
“We never talked about nutrition,” he says of his childhood days, partly spent in England and Germany. “Growing up in Europe we ate fewer processed foods, and I was fortunate to have my mom, even subconsciously, put good food on the table.” He and his siblings always ate a good breakfast, had normal paper-bag lunches and ate together as a family whenever possible. Of course by the time he reached high school, eating together became more difficult with he and his siblings involved in different activities—but even so, they still ate wholesome, nutritious meals even if they weren’t always at the same time.
Jackie Dikos, a two-time Olympic Trials marathon qualifier and certified specialist in sports nutrition, understands how varied schedules can make cohesive mealtimes difficult, but she says with some advanced planning it can be done.
“Forethought is required to have a family meal prepared and timed right to be eaten together instead of piecing together a meal in shifts from the concession stand,” says Dikos. “Convenient purchases such as plain frozen brown rice and preparing ingredients in bulk, such as baked sweet potatoes or hard-boiled eggs, for future use can take some of the pressure off a rushed family mealtime.”
But ultimately, at least for the youngest—athlete or not—it’s their parents who play the most important role when it comes to influencing what their child does or does not eat.
“We’re all products of our environment,” says Luck, adding he was fortunate to have a mom and dad who didn’t shove the idea of proper nutrition down their throats, but provided it nonetheless.
Dikos echoes the NFL All-Pro quarterback’s observations.
“Parents,” she says, “shape the future of their children in so many ways, including food choices. The language parents use when they talk about their own health and weight, family meals, stocking the fridge with healthy options and setting an example by eating healthy foods are just some of the many ways parents impact their children.”
Is breakfast really the most important meal?
Similar to Luck, teammate Anthony Castonzo grew up in a family where good, wholesome food—albeit even inadvertently—was almost always on the table.
“Mom did a ton of cooking,” says Castonzo of his childhood. “My parents owned a restaurant so we were accustomed to eating a ton of different things … crab legs, steak, pasta … and we had salad with every dinner and lunch.”
And like Luck, Castonzo always did, and always does, eat a healthy breakfast. Breakfasts that at times have consisted
of a dozen hard-boiled eggs: six whole and six whites only.
“As a junior (in high school) I was 6-foot-6, 195 pounds,” says the now 6-foot-7, 311-pound offensive lineman who played both basketball and football in high school, but eventually stopped playing basketball because he’d lose too much weight. “I knew I wanted to play sports in college and knew football was my best shot, so I stopped playing basketball.”
Once Castonzo arrived at Boston College, he said he knew he needed to gain weight to be effective in his position on the field, but he also knew he needed to increase muscle mass—not fat.
“I was very serious about nutrition,” he said. “You lose mobility if you gain fat.”
So Castonzo—although he had guidance and good direction from the athletic department’s strength and conditioning coaches—did his own research and learned what foods to eat, and which ones to avoid.
“I was a biochemistry major … I took things I learned in school and formulated a plan. I knew what was good and what wasn’t and learned what I could eat,” he said, adding the most important thing a young athlete can do is to research and understand what they’re eating.
“Proper nutrition education can be a huge confidence booster for the athlete pressured by weight goals,” says Dikos who recommends athletes speak with a professional trained in sports nutrition to best ensure their diet choices are on par with their goals.
“Confident fueling magnifies confident performance,” she says, and working with a trusted source on a customized fueling approach can be liberating for the athlete who experiences anxiety over the number on the scale.
As for breakfast, rather than get too hung up on a specific time when breakfast should be eaten, Dikos suggests viewing it more like a window of time when that first meal shouldn’t be missed.
“Breakfast,” she says, “can be used as a tool to support an early morning workout.” But, depending on the athlete, it might be postponed for after the workout and utilized as a post-workout recovery meal.
“An athlete with high-energy demands may need to consume virtually two breakfasts, one before the workout and another after,” suggests Dikos. “It supports great training and recovery, mental clarity throughout the day and makes the athlete a better decision maker in the food choices they make throughout the day.”
Improve performance and establish lifelong eating habits
Both Luck and Castonzo have been fortunate to have their hard work and athletic prowess award them the opportunity to play a sport they love and turn it into a career—but becoming a professional athlete, or even a collegiate athlete, isn’t a reality for most kids. Which is why it’s so vital that exercise combined with healthy lifelong eating habits be a priority regardless of their future in organized athletics. Through his partnership with Riley Children’s Health and the Change the Play program Luck encourages young people to make good choices about nutrition and exercise—choices that will help shape them into healthy adults.
The program challenges youth to “focus on fun ways to learn about exercise and healthy eating, both at school and at home,” says Luck. And fun is key.
“If it’s not fun, a kid’s not going to do it.” But, he says, that goes for young athletes as well—they too should enjoy their activities and have fun while playing whatever sport they’re involved in while maintaining balance.
“As an athlete,” says Luck, “you need to look for things that make you better, and moderation is important,” especially, he adds, when making food choices. And it’s that “looking for things that make you better” that can make all the difference in a young athlete’s performance, which is why Castonzo’s advice when it comes to nutrition is equally simple.
“Educate yourself,” he says. “Find out what’s in the food and how it affects your body.
“In the off season, I used to watch some of the young guys at the IMG Academy who were there training for the Combine. Some were so diligent with their diet,” he says. “Others, not so much.”
And of the guys who were indolent when it came to their food choices. Castonzo says no matter how good they were on the field, he guarantees none of them are still in the NFL.
“Fueling your body wrong will catch up to you,” he says. Quoting one of the Colts’ nutritionists he recommends everyone remember these seven words: “You can’t out train a bad diet.”
4 Tips for Young Athletes
When choosing foods to fuel your body for optimum performance, here are four things Dikos recommends for all young athletes:
1. Put whole foods first: Choose fresh and dried fruit, nuts and seeds, lean proteins, beans and lentils, avocado and other whole-food sources over prepackaged counterparts.
2. Plan ahead: Keep the pantry and fridge stocked, prepare food in bulk ahead of time and purchase ingredients such as plain frozen brown rice to keep meal time fresh, nutrient dense and convenient.
3. Eat balanced meals: Aim for a source of quality carbohydrates, lean protein and healthy fat with meals and snacks as often as possible.
4. Hydrate: As a sign of proper hydration, urine should be clear or light, not bright, yellow.
Additional sources for young athletes:
• For recommendations from renowned sports dietitian Nancy Clark | SuperKidsNutrition.com
• For advice from the “Biggest Losers” personal trainer Bob Harper, NFL MVP LaDainian Tomlinson and ’99 World Cup Soccer Champion Brandy Chastain | SuperHealthyKids.com
• For a performance-based grocery shopping tips, snack options and specific recipes for throwers, sprinters and jumpers | USATF.com
Click here for a link to a recipe for all athletes, young and beyond: Almond Granola Sweet Potato.