I’m a sports dietitian who has worked with hundreds of elite and pro athletes, and my best advice for teen athletes is to focus on food as fuel.
Focus on food as fuel for the body. I’m a sports dietitian who has worked with hundreds of elite and pro athletes, and that’s my best advice for teen athletes.
Food delivers calories—literally energy—to the body. Without enough energy to fuel the body and training over time, the energy shortage can disrupt the body’s systems, including metabolism and hormone levels.
Food delivers calories from three nutrients: carbohydrates, protein and fats. As a parent, you should help your teenage athlete understand how these different nutrients work in the body. If they have the understanding, they can more easily choose quality foods.
The Three Nutrients
Carbohydrates provide four calories of fuel per gram. These nutrients are broken down in the body and deliver glucose, which supports activity and is the number one source of energy for the brain. Of course, gummy bears, apples, sweet potatoes, whole grain bread, and soda all provide carbohydrates, but some of these sources are more valuable for the body than others. As you would guess, apples, sweet potatoes and whole grain bread are better sources. These types of carbohydrates also deliver vitamins, minerals and fiber, which provide longer lasting energy.
When athletes consume too many sweets and beverages, they will get a quick burst of energy, but the energy is quickly used up, leaving their body feeling sluggish. This doesn’t mean that gummy bears or soda can’t be a “sometime” food or drink, but such foods definitely shouldn’t be part of the daily routine. Most carbohydrates on a routine basis should come from quality sources like whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Protein provides four calories per gram and is more of a construction material in the body, used to build muscle and hormones. Many athletes eat so much protein they crowd out carbohydrates and fat from their eating plan. This is a mistake. Each day an athlete needs only about half of her body weight in grams of protein. For example, a 100-pound athlete needs about 50 grams of protein per day.
Foods and beverages provide ample protein. Teens do not need specialized protein products or powders, and protein supplements are generally not recommended until athletes are out of high school because their intake needs are not high enough to warrant added large amounts of protein. Not to mention the safety concerns due to lack of regulation of supplements.
Fats are unique in that they deliver more than double the energy per gram, compared to carbohydrates and protein. Fats provide nine calories per gram and are an important source of energy for the body. Fats we take in from food are broken down and used to fuel exercise and training at lower intensities. Fats also play many other important roles in the body, such as protecting the cells.
Teens should focus on healthy sources of fat, which can help sustain energy over the long haul. Healthier sources of fat include: cashews, peanuts, sunflower seeds, almonds, almond butter, tuna, salmon, chia seeds, hemp seeds, olive oil, and avocadoes.
To get enough calories and a mix of carbohydrates, protein and fats, teens should be having at least three meals and two to three snacks per day. This will provide fuel to the body throughout the day. Skipping meals and snacks will make it difficult to meet daily energy needs and over time could result in health issues.
Here are tips for fueling your student athlete:
- Offer quality sources of carbohydrates, protein and fats at meals and snacks. Examples include:
- Whole grain English muffin with egg plus a piece of fruit
- Taco bowl with brown rice, grilled chicken, veggies, and salsa, plus guacamole
- Chocolate milk to refuel after workouts or games
- Piece of fruit plus a handful of sunflower seeds or nuts for a snack
- Whole grain wrap filled with pulled chicken and veggies for lunch or an on-the-go dinner
- Yogurt topped with fruit and granola
- Work with your teen to create a food “game plan” (aka meal plan) each week. Having a plan in place will help your teens get the energy their bodies need every day.
- Consider the schedule for the week and realistically determine nights when meals can be cooked or nights when leftovers will need to be the solution.
- Ask for input on what fruit and vegetables they would like to include with meals.
- When possible, involve your teen in food preparation. Start simple with easy items like scrambling eggs for breakfast or preparing a salad to go with dinner.
- Stock up on the foods to make the plan happen!
- Create an environment where the healthier choice is the easier choice.
- In the cupboard: Have the first thing your teen sees be healthier choices like sunflower seeds, nuts, fruit, whole grain bars, etc.
- In the refrigerator: Keep fruit and veggies washed and ready to go and, when possible, in easy-to-view places.
- Container trick: Store sweets like candies and cookies in opaque containers that are out of sight or in cupboards that aren’t frequently visited. This can help curb consumption of sugary foods.
- On the counter: Have a fruit bowl that is filled with easy-to-grab fruit like bananas, apples, pears or peaches.
Fueling your body with the right mix of nutrients will yield benefits over time, from enhancing your performance to maintaining your overall health. Healthy eating is a journey, not a destination.
PB Chip Energy Bites
Makes about 24 bites
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1/4 cup coconut oil, melted
- 1 cup creamy peanut butter
- 3 cups rolled oats
- 3 tablespoons chia seeds
- 1 cup dark chocolate chips
In a mixing bowl combine the honey, coconut oil and peanut butter. Mix until well combined. Then add in the rolled oats and chia seeds. Stir to mix together. Finish with chocolate chips. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Remove from the refrigerator and form into bites, about 1 inch each. Place in a storage container or freeze.
Each energy bite has: 180 calories, 11 grams fat, 5 grams saturated fat, 50 milligrams sodium, 18 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 9 grams sugar, and 4 grams protein.
Maple Sea Salt Energy Bites
Makes 12-16 bites
- 1 cup old fashioned oats
- 1/2 cup almond butter
- 1/2 cup flax seed meal
- 1/2 cup chopped pecans
- 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon maple syrup
- 2 tablespoons chia seeds
- Sea salt to taste
Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl. Stir until combined. Form into 1-inch blocks and transfer to parchment paper. Sprinkle with sea salt. Place in a freezer bag or container and store in freezer or refrigerator.
Each bite has: 130 calories, 9 grams fat, 0.5 grams saturated fat, 35 milligrams sodium, 12 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 5 grams sugar, 3 grams protein.