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Game-winning eating habits for young athletes

🕐 4 min read

I’ve often speculated that my boys would more keenly listen to my health mantras if I were an NFL or NBA star instead of just their mom. They perk up at advertisements featuring professional athletes endorsing sports drinks or a shoe line. Yes, we’ve indulged in a few pairs of Kobes, and they are convinced, despite the nutrition facts I’ve shared, that Gatorade is good.

My speculation was proved right recently when I had the opportunity to sit down with San Diego Charger Melvin Gordon. Suddenly, everything I’ve ever said sounded way cooler coming from a pro football player. When my boys found out Gordon said that eating well gives him more energy and an edge over other players, that water trumps sports drinks, that a well-balanced breakfast is key and that kids should start eating well at a young age, they instantly were more interested in healthy eating. (The shocking evidence: My sweets-loving older child later turned down his teammates’ dugout candy in favor of sunflower seeds and grapes.)

Of all aspects of teens’ athletic careers, there are two areas over which they have the most control: what they eat and the number of hours they practice. Yes, parents can hire private coaches, drive across state lines for tournaments and buy top-of-the-line equipment for their kids, but teens themselves can make meaningful daily food choices that can offer them an edge, especially when they require stamina for a wearying fourth quarter or a second game of the day.

Kids ages 13 to 18 are going through puberty and a huge period of growth, bringing obvious physical changes and an increase in the amount of energy they require. Studies show that poor eating can affect not only athletic performance but also overall growth and physical development, not to mention academic performance.

So how can teens fuel themselves best? Here’s my advice.

When to eat

The night before a game: Begin regular hydration. Sipping water over an extended period of time is preferred over guzzling it quickly immediately before a game. Take a water bottle wherever you go, even to school.

Breakfast: Do not skip this meal, as it boosts energy and metabolism for the entire day. Breakfast eaters have been shown to have better concentration, increased problem-solving capabilities and quicker mental performance, in addition to better muscle energy.

Pre-workout meal: The ideal time for a meal is two to three hours before a game so the body has time to digest the food and use the nutrients. (Parents, this might mean feeding young athletes dinner immediately after school, then a lighter meal or snack after practice or a game.) According to Cynthia Lair’s book “Feeding the Athlete,” “it is critical to eat a healthy meal containing ample carbohydrates prior to a game or practice in order to have the muscle energy to play at your full potential. . . . When our glycogen levels are low we become slower, weaker and less able to concentrate.” Stop eating one hour before a game or practice, as digestion will distract from performance and a full stomach is likely to cause cramps or other discomfort.

Halftime: The best halftime snack is a watery fruit such as an orange, watermelon, grapes, pineapple or strawberries, all of which provide glucose and hydration yet don’t slow the body down.

After the game: Replenish immediately following a big game or workout. Studies show that an athlete’s muscles are able to restock glycogen more quickly if carbohydrates are consumed immediately following a game or practice. This is especially important if you have a second game that day or even one the following day.

What to eat

Carbohydrates turn into energy in the body faster than any other food source, so they are an essential part of an athlete’s diet, especially within 24 hours of a big game. Try fruits; vegetables; whole grains such as brown rice, oatmeal and quinoa; and whole-grain bread or pasta.

Protein is a longer-range source of energy, helping to build and repair muscle and tissue and also regulating muscle contraction and water in the body. Good sources are eggs, lean meats, fish, beans, nuts and seeds, and dairy. Young athletes could use a little more protein than non-athletes, but it is a myth that they need large amounts. Stick to no more than 15 percent of total calorie intake.

Fats are a secondary source of energy for the body. Fats build the brain, supporting quick thinking on the field. Good sources are avocados, nuts and seeds, fish, meat and olive oil.

Water supports all bodily functions. A 2013 report by the Canadian Paediatric Society said that “athletic performance can be affected by what, how much and when an athlete drinks.” Drink water before, during and following games, even if you are not thirsty.

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Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a Washington, D.C.-based nutrition education company, and co-author of “Super Food Cards,” a collection of healthful recipes and advice.

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