A young athlete's schedule doesn't exactly lend itself to ideal nutrition. Case in point? The long stretch between lunch and dinner. Due to class schedules and after-school athletic commitments, it can be very difficult to eat during this span of time.
If your lunch period ends at 11:30 a.m., classes are over at 3:00 p.m. and practice runs until 6:00, you can be stranded seven to eight hours between meals. In many cases, snack options are limited to junk food from a vending machine.
Since those choices aren't very healthy, many young athletes decide to eat nothing at all. The rationale is a desire to be better—"I don't want to eat junk, so I won't eat anything." But although this thought process might be positive, the effects are far from it. For young athletes, eating "something" is almost always better than eating "nothing" over a long stretch of time—especially before activity.
Calories are the Top Priority
Let's make one thing clear: Fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, lean meats and whole grains are the pillars of a proper diet. In a perfect world, you'd never touch highly processed foods. But at the end of the day, the most important thing for an athlete is his or her caloric intake.
Calories are the measure of the energy we get from the food we eat. Without calories, our bodies cannot function. Generally speaking, the more active you are, the more calories you need—so young athletes, with their jam-packed training schedules, need quite a few calories.
Furthermore, the activity level of young athletes is not the only thing that ups their caloric requirements. Calories also fuel their natural growth and development. They don't eat just to allow their bodies to function normally and perform well during activity; they also eat to fuel their bodies' natural growth in terms of bone, tissue, etc.
Roberta Anding, Director of Sports Nutrition at the Houston Children's Hospital, says, "Young athletes struggle with getting enough calories. Since they've also got growth and development, their calorie requirements are much higher."
When you combine the extra calories needed to support activity with the additional calories needed to support natural growth, the average teenage athlete needs a boatload of calories. According to the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine, male high school athletes need between 3,000 and 6,000 calories a day, and female high school athletes need between 2,200 and 4,000 calories a day.
If you go seven or eight hours without eating on a regular basis (aside from sleeping), odds are you are coming up short on your requirements.
What happens when you do this?
In the short term, you feel fatigued, you have trouble focusing, and your metabolism slows down. In the long term, you will experience growth issues, muscle loss, decreased bone density and other nasty symptoms.
Going a long time without eating also deprives your body of carbohydrates, leaving you with no fuel to power through your afternoon practice, workout or game.
Carbs are Your Fuel
If you eat a snack prior to activity, you want it to be high in carbs. "Carbs are the fuel of exercising muscle," says Anding. If your body doesn't get enough carbs, it starts using other things for fuel—like fat and even protein. If you want to stay energized and maintain muscle mass, that's not a good thing. If you're stuck in a situation where you haven't eaten for several hours and you have an activity coming up, choosing a carb-heavy food (even if it isn't very nutritious) beats eating nothing. Think of it like fueling a car. Sure, you'd prefer to use high-quality fuel, but any type of fuel beats an empty tank.
"Sometimes it is better to have something like a Snickers if your other option is to just not eat for eight hours, especially if you need the calories to support performance or maintain your weight. If the majority of the rest of your intake is made up of mostly lean protein, quality carbs, healthy fats, and lots of fruits and veggies, an occasional candy bar is not a big concern. It's the total intake that matters," says Brian St. Pierre, nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition.
6 Better-Than-Nothing Choices
The "something is better than nothing" dilemma can be avoided by packing a snack, but the reality is, most young athletes often find themselves without one in those situations. And while their brains might tell them to skip junk food options (especially before activity), many of those options are better than eating nothing.
Are the following choices what you should be eating all the time? Of course not. Many are high in sugar and added fat and lack valuable micronutrients. But their high-calorie and carb count will fuel your body better than nothing. Just make sure that the rest of your diet consists of the right foods and you'll be good to go.
Note: for best results, eat these foods 30 to 90 minutes before activity.
1. Gummy Candy
Fruit snacks or gummy candies are high in carbs and usually easy to digest. "The carbs in these are close to—but not exactly like—the carbs found in popular gels and goos," says Anding. Gummy bears are actually a favorite halftime snack of the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team.
This one depends on how well your stomach handles fatty foods. If chips don't upset your stomach, they're a pretty good source of carbohydrates and sodium. In terms of varieties, plain options like pretzels beat out heavily-seasoned choices like Doritos and Cheetos.
3. Fruit Juice
Fruit juice is typically derided for its high sugar content, but being high in sugar means it's high in carbs. Anding recommends drinking a 12-ounce bottle of juice followed by 12 ounces of water, which mimics the amount of carbs and fluid in an average sports drink.
4. Animal Crackers
Animal crackers are another good source of carbs and are typically easy on the stomach. You don't want to munch them mindlessly while watching TV, but a serving before activity will give you some much-needed energy.
5. Fruit-Filled Cookies
Although fruit-filled cookies like Fig Newtons are not as good as eating real fruit, they're high in carbs and fiber and low in fat. "Don't get fooled by the name. Most of these cookies aren't actually a source of fruit—but they are a source of valuable carbs," Anding says.
6. Snickers Bar
Candy bars certainly should not be a big part of your diet, but Snickers are actually a decent pre-activity option. They're high in carbs and have a decent amount of protein to keep you going strong. Just don't make them a daily habit.
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