More and more often I am being asked by coaches or parents what their student athletes can be doing to optimize their athletic performance. The updated frequency with which these inquiries are being made means that more people are beginning to appreciate the impact that nutrition has on our ability to think, learn, live and play at our highest potential – which is AWESOME! I know how important the daily food choices we make are, and I am so excited when other people begin to make this realization as well. (Especially parents and coaches who have such a meaningful impact on the nutrition behaviors adopted by their kids and players - not just now, but for the rest of their lives!) That being said, often times there is a pre-conceived notion that my response is going be centered around supplement recommendations and complicated pre and post workout nutrition routines. In reality, these areas are not where the majority of my suggestions are focused. Young athletes and their parents and coaches should instead concentrate on mastering foundational nutrition habits – simple, consistent behaviors that will allow them to fuel their growing and active bodies, recover as effectively as possible and build resilient immune systems that will help them stay healthy and strong throughout grueling sport seasons. These habits aren’t fancy or complicated, but I can tell you with certainty that very few individuals (especially kids) are practicing them consistently, if at all. Assessing your current behaviors is a necessary step to determining how you can improve your nutritional proficiency, so If you are a parent, coach or athlete yourself, run through the following list and ask yourself if you and/or your athlete are practicing each habit AT LEAST 80% of the time.
Eating AT LEAST 4-5 servings (about the size of your fist) of vegetables every day? *Why does this matter? Vegetables are nature’s multivitamin, and because they are delivered directly (without the processing that goes into making supplements) they also provide the best “bang for your buck” when it comes to the nutrients actually being absorbed by your cells. That, and vegetables come with the added benefit of dietary fiber, which is crucial for gut health. While this doesn’t mean that supplementation with individual vitamins or minerals isn’t occasionally helpful or necessary, you should start by directly consuming these nutrients through a wide variety of plant sources.
Consuming between .85-1x your bodyweight in grams of protein/day? (EX: a 150lb individual would be aiming for 128-150 grams of protein/day.) *Why does this matter? Consuming adequate dietary protein throughout the day helps to contribute to a “pool” of amino acids in your bloodstream. During and after practice, games or training athletes enter into a catabolic state, where they are actually breaking down muscle protein. At this time, the amino acid pool is called upon to help replenish and even promote muscle protein synthesis, and help ensure efficient recovery. (This is a simplified explanation, and amino acids have MANY other roles in the body, but in terms of this conversation the roles described above are most relevant.)
Drinking AT LEAST half your bodyweight in ounces of water or milk every day? *Why does this matter? As little as 2% dehydration drastically effects your ability to perform physically and mentally and consuming hydrating fluids throughout the day is the only way to prevent this.
Limiting (or eliminating) highly-processed foods and beverages? *Why does this matter? Highly processed foods and beverages such as; breakfast cereals, snack bars, chips, fast food, soda, “health” juices, pre-made smoothies etc. usually contain added sugars, vegetable oils and artificial flavoring or preservatives that can disrupt metabolic processes that are crucial for performing optimally in both mental and physical capacities. Yikes!
Putting thought (and at least some planning) into the meals and snacks you’re consuming on a daily basis? *Why does this matter? As the saying goes, “failing to plan is planning to fail.” Between hectic class and sports schedules, potentially limited cafeteria offerings, and the temptation of fast food options, optimal nutrition requires some careful planning on the part of athletes and their parents and coaches.
If you answered “no” to one or more of these questions you may be wondering what you can do to improve your or your athlete’s nutrition habits. Which is great, because honestly, we all have room for improvement! Below are what I consider to be the three most realistic and effective changes that you can make immediately;
Emphasize consuming at least 3 complete meals each day. A complete meal ensures that you are consuming the necessary macro and micro nutrients necessary to perform and recover at a high level, without any fancy supplements or processed bars or smoothies. If you accompany each meal with 12-16 ounces of water or milk, you will also be well on your way towards meeting your hydration goals for the day.
A complete meal consists of the following (the exact serving sizes depends on the individual);
1-2 palm sized servings of protein (chicken, fish, beef, greek yogurt, protein powder, eggs, tofu etc.)
2-4 fist sized servings of non-starchy veggies (greens, broccoli, green beans, asparagus, peppers, onions, etc.)
1-2 cupped handfuls of smart carbs – aka minimally processed (potato, rice and other grains, squash, oats, fruit, whole grain bread etc.)
1-2 thumb-sized servings of heathy fats (avocado, nuts, nut butter, olive oil, seeds etc.)
A couple of real life examples would be;
A Burrito Bowl with 1-2 palm sized servings of chicken, 2-3 fist sized servings of peppers and onions, 2 cupped handfuls of rice, and 2 thumb sized servings of guacamole.
A Breakfast Sandwich with 2-3 eggs, 2 handfuls of spinach and a serving of cheese and/or avocado on whole grain toast or English muffin.
Have healthy snacks on hand for pre- or post- practice or games or to fill in the gaps during the day. These snacks should come as close to mimicking the “complete meal” model above as possible. H
Prepared examples include;
A Greek Yogurt parfait – 1 Serving of greek yogurt topped with a handful of fruit and a handful of granola (preferably low in sugar and without vegetable oil – pretty easy and cheap to make a big batch at home.) A
A home-made “Super Shake” – 1 handful of greens, 1 handful of fruit, 1 scoop of protein powder, 1 thumb sized serving of nuts or nut butter, 1 cup of milk or water.A
On the go examples include;
A chocolate milk (decent brands that aren’t too highly processed or laden with sugar include Horizons Organic or Fairlife,) and an RX Bar or Lara Bar.
Jerky and a piece of fruit. Jerky
Peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole grain bread.
Do a “junk food” audit. Try to get rid of as much soda, energy drinks, candy, chips, breakfast cereals, snack bars and fast foods as possible. It’s true from a caloric perspective that many kids and young adults, especially active ones, can “get away” with eating more junk and not gaining weight. However, that doesn’t mean that they are immune to the other negative effects that the added sugar, vegetable oil, chemical preservatives, food dyes and other additives will wreak on their bodies, brains and immune systems. Athletes in particular need to be consuming whole foods that will deliver energy without additives that can cause systemic inflammation and interrupt necessary metabolic processes.
One of the biggest frustrations that I have is how many teams stop at fast food restaurants on their way home from games or meets – this makes it close to impossible for athletes to re-fuel with a complete meal that meets their needs. If you or your kid are on a team or if you are the coach of a team that does this, suggest stopping at a grocery store instead where it is easier to visit a salad bar or grab a sandwich. If this isn’t an option, do your best to pack foods like those listed in the snack suggestions above to hold you over until you get home.
If you are looking for a competitive advantage for yourself or your athlete, try implementing the strategies above with a focus on consistency. They may seem simple, but these nutrition behaviors will have a huge impact on performance both on the playing field and in the classroom!