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School is back in session and that means many student-athletes will begin practices soon. While teenagers are not known for maintaining a healthy diet, active teens can require up to 3,500 calories per day to support their growth, development and sports training.

It goes without saying that teens should develop healthy eating habits even in the off-season but what does a student-athlete need nutrition-wise to be the best they can be?

To achieve optimal performance and ensure proper nutrition, teenage athletes should strive to incorporate the following in their diet:

Carbohydrates:  This is the body’s preferred source of fuel. Approximately 55-70 percent of calories should come from carbohydrates.  Carbohydrates are the only macronutrient that can be stored. Carbohydrates turn into glucose (the body’s fuel) about one to 1.5 hours after eating. What is not used will be stored in the muscle and liver and used during exercise.

Not all carbs are equal. Nutrient-packed complex carbohydrates are best.  Foods such as whole wheat bread, fruits, vegetables, beans, potatoes, corn and oatmeal provide sustained energy as well as vitamins.  It’s best to avoid soda, candy, chips, baked goods and drinks containing high levels of sugar like juices. Taking sugar and soda away from a teenager may sound daunting, but as with all foods, the less processed they are, the more nutritious they will be.  It’s also important to remember that carbohydrates are needed before practice, during activities/games and then again following the activity to replace what was used.

Convenience often drives many of the decisions teenagers make. Help your teen make wise nutritious choices by sending them off to practice with a few healthy snacks in their gym bag. Provide options that will help replenish what their body needs in order to encourage them to skip the sugary vending machine snacks after practice.

Protein:  In the teen years—especially among student-athletes—a lot of emphasis is placed on protein and how much is needed or if a supplement such as protein powders or shakes should be used. While adequate protein is essential for growth, tissue repair and maintaining a healthy immune system, teens and adults who consume animal sources of protein (meat, poultry, fish, dairy, cheese, yogurt etc.) typically meet their protein needs through diet alone and may not require a supplement.

Unlike carbohydrates, protein cannot be stored, so if you eat more protein than your body can use (approximately 30 grams per meal) it is stored as fat. Contrary to popular belief, protein does not build muscle—exercising the muscle builds muscle.  Rather, protein helps to repair the muscle tissue post workout.

Student-athletes need .5 to 1 g/lb of ideal body weight per day. A good rule of thumb is to consume two to three servings of meat/meat alternative and two to four servings of dairy per day.  The waste product of protein can be hard on the kidneys so when focusing on increasing protein intake, make sure to also increase water intake.

Healthy Fats:  Fats help with hormone production, vitamin absorption and cell membrane formation. Examples of healthy fats include avocados, nuts, seeds, fish, such as tuna or salmon, and oils such as olive oil or canola oil. Consuming healthy fats is great for cardiovascular health as well.

Fluids:  One of the most important aspects of sports training is proper hydration. Fluids help maintain body temperature, transport nutrients and remove waste.  Fluid intake is important before, during and after workouts and competitions.

The type and amount of fluid you need depends on the activity, intensity level and the weather. A good rule of thumb is to consume:

  • One to two cups of fluids one hour before exercise
  • One cup of fluids 15 to 30 minutes before exercise
  • Then four to eight ounces of fluids every 20 to 30 minutes during the activity

Athletes can sweat 6 to 10 percent of their body weight during a game/competition. Many athletes will weigh themselves before and after an event and drink approximately two cups of fluid for every pound lost. Studies suggest that most athletes do not voluntarily rehydrate after an event, therefore, a plan should be in place to make sure fluids are replaced as well as carbohydrates.

It’s important to remember that water is best for activities that last 60 to 90 minutes. Activities lasting longer than that require additional electrolytes. If extra calories and sugar are a concern, look for a “lighter” version of your favorite electrolyte replacement beverage. A word of caution about “energy drinks”: Despite their claims, these beverages contain large amounts of caffeine which can cause heart palpitations and dehydration and should not be used during practice or a sporting event.

Following these basic guidelines and using good judgement—whether you are a parent or coach—can help ensure the health and safety of your student-athletes.

-Tarie Beldin, RD, LD, FAND

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