Keeping Student Athletes Healthy

Participating in a school sports programs is a great opportunity to help adolescents develop muscular strength, keep weight under control, boost confidence and inspire camaraderie.

But when participating in sports on any level, eating the right balance of nutrients is essential. For athletes looking to build muscle and strength, understanding caloric intake and proportions of different macronutrients (carbs, fats and protein) is key.

As spring sports season ramps up around Seattle, we want to offer tips to students, coaches and parents on ways to ensure student athletes are getting proper nutrition.

When building a diet for an athlete, it’s important to incorporate plenty of carbohydrates. Many people are afraid of carbs, but for athletic purposes, carbs are critical to performance.

The main source of energy for an athletes’ explosive power comes from carbs. About 60 to 70 percent of the athlete diet should be good carbs, such as whole grains, quinoa, legumes (beans and lentils), fruit, unsweetened yogurt and root vegetables, such as sweet potatoes.

During the first two minutes of high-intensity exercises, all energy generated comes from carbohydrates. As exercise time increases, the calories burned start to transition from carbohydrate stores to the fat stores -– meaning that it’s important for athletes to include healthy fats in their diet.

At most, 30 percent of total caloric intake should come from healthy fats such as nuts, salmon, avocado, omega-3 eggs and grass-fed meats — all of which also help with inflammation and are good for joint health.

Myth Busters

With easy access to information, nutrition myths continue to confuse even the most experienced athletes. Here are a few of the more common exercise nutrition myths, why they’re wrong and how they can hurt performance.

• Being skinny is healthy and leads to better sports performance — To excel in their sport, it is important that all athletes eat enough. If an athlete is looking to lose weight, he/she shouldn’t be losing more than 1 to 2 pounds a week.

It’s also important to note that women’s bodies normally have a higher fat-content percentage than men. If a women’s body-fat percentage gets too low, their menstrual cycles can become irregular or stop, which decreases their hormone production of estrogen. This, in turn, can decrease their bone density and increase their risk for development of stress fractures.

In the past, women were told that if they were training hard, it was normal to miss their menstrual period, which is not true.

Also, the social pressures for women to look a certain way can lead to eating disorders or dieting. These issues can lead to “athletic female triad.” This comprises not eating enough calories, which causes the cessation of menstrual periods, which can lead to developing decreased bone density/osteoporosis.

• Sports drinks keep athletes hydrated better than water — Generally sports drinks should only be considered for high-endurance and intensity sports in which the participant is sweating heavily and exerting themselves for greater than 90 minutes. Otherwise, water is enough to hydrate.

Drink to thirst is a good rule of thumb, and if properly hydrated, urine should be very light yellow to clear in color.

• Athletes should eat a protein-heavy diet — One misconception many athletes have is the need to increase protein, decrease fats and switch to a “low-carb” diet. Protein deficiency is not an issue under the standard western diet, and protein is not the main energy source for the body like carbohydrates.

There is a distinction between protein needs for certain athletes: endurance versus strength. For endurance athletes, the protein recommendation is 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight, but for strength and power athletes, the recommendation is 1.2 to 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight. For reference, 22 grams of protein is 3 ounces of meat, fish or poultry; an 8-ounce glass of milk contains about 8 grams of protein.

• Carbo-loading provides athletes with more energy — Limiting carbo-loading the night before an event should be a thing of the past. What makes the most impact is to increase carbohydrate intake up to a week before the event.

Carbs that come naturally with fiber, such as oats and winter squash, help control blood sugar for long-term energy.

• Quick energy fix: sugar and caffeine — Many athletes mistakenly consume sugary foods or caffeinated beverages before an athletic event in an effort to get a jolt of energy. But sugar causes a rapid rise in blood sugar, which can cause a subsequent energy crash. Caffeine can do the same, as well as upsetting the stomach.

If snacking immediately before an event, choose a snack with complex carbs and natural sugars, like whole-grain crackers or fruit.

The Right Foods

As students get more involved and dedicated to their sport, they become increasingly health-conscious. But what’s important is ensuring that they’re filling up on the right foods and portions.

Young athletes, in general, need more calories than adult athletes because of their faster growth and metabolic rates. Without proper fuel and nourishment the body cannot attain its full athletic potential and is more susceptible to fatigue and injury.

Eating regular, well-balanced meals each day helps the body get nutrition, balances blood sugar levels and provides the foundation for a strong, healthy body.