We Are Loading Up our Young Athletes With The Wrong Fuel Then Wondering Why Their Health, Energy and Focus Are Off.
A snapshot of youth sports nutrition, a plan to better health and performance.
As a coach and/or parent of a young athlete, we have all been there. The harried scene to get out the door to the next meet or game comes with an equipment check, ensure proper clothing, time check, mapping out the best route and of course snacks. Snacks are last on the priority list here for a reason.
“We will grab something at (insert your fast food location here) on the way”.
‘What about after or in between games? They have a (insert your fast food location here) close by, we can run out and get something”. The affordability and convenience of the fast food option has thrown performance based nutritional choices completely out the window.
The time and effort to prepare sandwiches or wraps with real food, cutting up vegetables and fruit, and the non-sport drink liquids with beneficial replenishment seems as a foreign as speaking an unfamiliar language.
Years ago, travel tournaments twice a month or multiple times per year were not the norm. With their rise so has come a ton of choices on what we put in young athletes’ bodies, and we are making the wrong ones.
Race car teams would not consider putting in crude and cheap fuel in their engines, yet that is exactly what we do when we feed our young athletes fast food.
The link between nutrition and performance is undeniable. The quality and amount of food consumed has a direct link to health and performance. Specifically impacted are energy levels, recovery ability, focus and decision making as well as good health. Poor nutritional choices enhance fatigue and are a great way to ensure not being able to meet the demands of the game.
There is a narrative that over complicates fundamental and smart nutritional choices and encouraging shortcuts.
The sports drink industry is a great example, which we covered in a previous edition of The Physical Movement.
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A recent post-game visit to an elite semi pro under 20 hockey locker room drove the point home about weight maintenance, recovery and protein intake. Most players all had their own protein tub in their arms as they boarded the bus to the next location. While their activity levels were off the chart and weight maintenance can be an issue, the solution is one sided if not balanced with a diet catered for health and performance.
The marketing behind protein supplementation is another push to complicate and specialize care that can be covered with sound food choices.
With all the money being spent on skill development, participation fees, equipment, time spent, travel costs and overall commitment, it becomes astounding that so little is spent on nutritional choices, even at the very youngest levels of youth sport.
“Good nutrition accounts for 50% of my performance with 40% being mental and 10% being physical”
Hayley Wickenheiser, 5 time Canadian Olympian.
Young athletes often look to coaches as the most trusted source of nutrition information over parents, friends, teachers or dietitians. 1
It becomes clear that coaches are health role models who support athletes to make smart food choices for improved overall health and performance. This point alone is worth a longer discussion within youth sport organizations.
A study of Quebec high school coaches revealed that less than 30% of the coaches could answer correctly some general nutrition questions 2. Is this finding surprising?
This was of high school coaches, not many of which do no have specific knowledge or formal training in sports nutrition.
Which begs the question, at the youth level, is it really that complicated? The theory is simple to digest and not new, but like most things the implementation is not necessarily easy.
Does youth sports nutrition fall into the category of knowing what is good for you and ignoring it anyway for the sake of convenience?
This is not the only health related topic in the world that would fall under this category (reference smoking for example).
We will leave food consultants and dieticians to the elite and pro athlete level, for now, let’s focus on simplifying.
Editors Note and disclaimer: while being a teacher and coach for over 30 years, I am not a dietician or food scientist. I am like all of you, and have moments of weakness around food, and I love my sweets! Below is a summary of a great article from Ryan Andrews. Ryan is a principal nutritionist and adviser for Precision Nutrition and an adjunct instructor at Purchase College, State University of New York. He holds master’s degrees in both Nutrition and Exercise Physiology from Kent State University and a BS in Exercise Science from the University of Northern Colorado. Andrews is also a Registered Dietitian (RD), Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA), a certified exercise physiologist (ACSM), and a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT).
Choose whole, minimally processed foods. Avoid processed foods that are specifically marketed to kids.
Cut the sugar. Most obvious sources of unwanted sugar : soda, sports drinks, candy, breakfast cereals. Less obvious sources of sugar = everything else from yogurt to bread
Get the crap out: processed foods come with a ton of preservatives and chemical that feed us all toxins. Read the labels and inspect for yourself.
Incorporate vegetables and fruits into kids’ daily diet. We have been told this since we were kids, but yet it requires preparation and planning (not strengths in todays’ fast paced world). Many fruits and vegetables are also preserved with chemicals to keep them looking nice in the store. Wash them diligently. Cut up fruits and veggies and make easy to access during the day, in or between games.
Supplement with vitamins and minerals if needed, but try to get nutrients from a varied, whole-foods diet first. One of the reasons this industry has grown is that we really are not getting a balance diet as we used to years ago.
Help kids regulate their appetite and hunger cues with whole foods and mindful eating. Staying away from long periods of time without eating, not searching the pantry when hungry or even making the healthy snacks available.
Take the lead an adopt healthy habits yourself. Coaches and parents this is for you. We are being watched and our behavior translates to our young people. Our patterns become their patterns. You rush off to the local drive through to get breakfast becomes their habit. More than ever kids need a role model for positive behavior. Sometimes we need reminding how important this is.
The entire article by Ryan Andrews is referenced below on the precision nutrition link.
While the theory is not new, our overall health in our society tells us the implementation is poor.
Where the rubber hits the road, some practical tips on making positive nutritional habits happen for the busy coach and parent with their young athlete:
1. The why has to be reinforced in our minds as parents and coaches: positive food behaviors rely on discipline and planning. These same 2 life habits we want to instill in our young athletes in their chosen sport.
2. The patterns start at home with our prioritization of food preparation. If we don’t prepare food as a priority normally, how can we do so on tournament week or game day?
3. Take your kids grocery shopping and go through the process of picking foods that are healthy. While this may be painful every time, occasional trips with mom and dad will pay off. The value of reading labels and what it takes for food to get to the grocery stores is a great lesson.
4. Get your kids to help in the kitchen. Food preparation is a habit like brushing your teeth. Practice it, make it non-negotiable and presto it is a habit.
5. Invest in sturdy equipment that enables portability of a wide variety of food. This includes knapsacks, mini-coolers, thermos flasks, freezer-packs, plastic food and beverage containers, small can openers, utensils, etc.
6. Always have cut up fruits and vegetables in the fridge ready to go.
7. Minimize sugar heavy foods in the house.
8. Create 1 day a week for treat day for those indulgences.
9. On long trips, minimize fast food rest stops and use the food prep where possible.
Note: the most disciplined, highest performing athletes do come to a realization early on the role nutrition plays in being their best and have been spotted getting on buses with their own cooler. Fact.
On road trips, first stop is the grocery store at your destination. Load up for the next few days.
Be a role model. Walk the walk and lead by example.
Good news on the role model front, proper nutrition is starting to take on a higher profile:
1. Calengor K, McCargar L. A Cyber-Survey Look at Teenagers Eating Habits. Proceedings of the Dairy Farmers of Canada 2006 Health and Nutrition Symposium. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Nov 30, 2006.
The Ryan Andrews article: https://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-nutrition-for-kids
In 2018, Alberta published a handbook for coaches education around nutrition: https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/assets/info/nutrition/if-nfs-sports-nutrition-for-youth.pdf