Optimal Nutrition for Young Athletes
Dr. Thomas D’Andrea, D.C.
Monmouth Pain and Rehabilitation Red Bank
A Very Quick Reference Guide
Think of your body as a machine. This machine needs to be well oiled and tuned up for its best performance. Think of nutrition as the fuel for your engine. The better the fuel you use, the better the machine will perform.
Foods can be understood in three categories:
All three are essential and necessary for top performance. Too much or not enough of any of them can be harmful. For optimal performance, balance is the key! So what is the proper balance?
Balance your Plate
Here is a simple rule during mealtime that young athletes can utilize all year, both during the season and off-season to ensure proper nutrition.
Think of a large round plate. Fill up the plate with the following:
- Fill ¼ of the plate with 8-10 ounces of lean protein (chicken, fish, turkey, eggs, tofu, beans)
- Fill ½ of the plate with dark leafy greens prepared however you wish (spinach, kale, collards, broccoli, Peas, ect.)
- The rest of the plate is quality fat. (nuts, olive oil (never heated above 125 degrees), flax oil (never cooked), avocado, ect.)
You may ask, where is the pasta? Where is the bread? Where is the rice? These are called complex carbohydrates. As you will see next, there is a time and place for them for the young athlete. However, to keep your engine at maximal performance, you only want to eat those complex carbohydrates specifically for energy to prepare for training and competition or to recover from training and competition.
Carbohydrates, Training, and Competition
15 hours prior to competition eat a high carbohydrate meal. Here is where you can load up on your rice, bread, pasta. Why? By doing so, you fill your liver and muscles with energy to be used during competition. How? The carbohydrate converts to a sugar in your blood in the form of glucose. Your pancreas secretes insulin gobbling up all the sugary glucose and storing it into the liver and muscles in the form of glycogen. Glycogen is then released as energy when you need it!
After training or a competition, you want to refill the liver and muscles with stored energy (glycogen). This is the time for more carbs. Any complex carbohydrate that is eaten after the glycogen energy storage is full will convert to fat in your body. This only hurts the athlete and his/her performance.
Young athletes need protein to build muscle. Research suggests 1.2-1.7 g protein/kg weight. So, if you are 100 pounds, you need 50 – 80 grams of protein per day. Too much protein causes stress on the engine. The myth is that more protein intake leads to more muscle. This is not the case. Once of the reasons for Green Leafy Veggies is that they help the body with the assimilation of the protein. More on this later.
Keep it simple. If you are eating well you do not need to supplement very much. I suggest a multivitamin and 1000-3000 mg. daily of fish oil (I like Nordic Naturals Cod Liver Oil Gel Caps (lemon flavored)).
Milk does not make the body strong. Actually, research shows that the more calcium you intake through dairy, the weaker the bones become. Milk comes from a 2000 pound animal. It is designed for calfs to become 2000 pound animals. Do you want to become 2000 pounds? The milk protein (casein) is very difficult for most humans to absorb. Minimal amounts are ok in most of us. Keep dairy minimal if at all.
Running Your Engine at MAXIMAL Efficiency
You never want your engine to breakdown. You never want your engine to become red and burn. In your body, this is called inflammation. Let’s say you get hit by a baseball in your arm. Inflammation is the redness you see right after you get hit. Well, if you do not eat properly, the inside of your body and even your blood can become inflamed. This inflammation causes increased fatigue and a decrease in overall production.
Most foods can either cause inflammation (acid forming) or reduce inflammation (alkaline forming). It is important for the young athlete to eat foods that are alkaline forming if he/she wants to be a peak performer.
Acid vs. Alkaline – Acid Forming Foods fatigue you, slow your recovery, increase inflammation, increase illness, and increase obesity. Alkaline Forming foods ARE THE WAY TO GO! Alkaline forming foods clean the muscle cells. Think of alkaline food as a cleaner for the muscles. Similar to cleaning dirty windows. The alkaline foods clean out the dirt and grime that builds up in the cells to allow your engine to run at its best!
Examples of Alkaline Forming Foods:
ALL LEAFY GREENS
Examples of Acid Forming Foods:
Animal Protein (chicken, fish, beef, turkey, pork, ect.)
All Dairy (cheese, milk)
All types of soda
This is a naturally occurring amino acid (protein building block) found in meat and fish. It is stored in muscles where it is used for energy as ATP. There are NO studies that show the safety of this supplement for anyone under 19. Do the risks outweigh the benefits? Will it help the young athlete perform better? Maybe. Even probably. But at what risk to the kidneys, liver or other organs? I say no.
Remember the rule established by the FDA and nutritional research: 1.2-1.7 grams protein/kg body weight daily. More protein will not give you more muscle. Use protein supplements only if you are not getting enough protein in your regular meals. Remember that most of these protein supplements will be acid forming and thus be pro-inflammatory to the young athlete’s body.
Eat Organic When Possible
Certified Organic is no myth. There is plenty of research to suggest that organic vegetables have 75%+ greater nutritional value (vitamins and minerals) than the same amount of conventional vegetables.
Water intake should be at least ½ of your body weight in ounces. So, if you weigh 100 pounds drink at least 50 ounces of water per day. When training or competing drink more!