Monday, January 7, 2013

Nutrition for young athletes: Smart eating for top performance 

We’ve all heard people say, “you are what you eat,” right? Well, when it comes to soccer (and any other sport), it’s also true that how you eat affects how you play. It makes sense when you think about it—give your body the best fuel (good food) and it’ll give you its best performance--on the soccer field, at school and everywhere else. 

Power Foods

Young athletes need power foods with lots of nutrients and minimal amounts of fat and added sugar. High-energy carbohydrates from whole grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy foods are especially important. Young athletes need extra energy for their sport’s practices and games, beyond the normal amount needed for growth and brainpower at school. Here’s how to get the carbs your body craves:

•              Eat a Champion’s Breakfast. Eat whole-grain cereals or muffins made with whole grains and fruit, like bananas, blueberries and raisins. Create an instant yogurt parfait with layers of low-fat vanilla yogurt; fresh, frozen or canned fruit; and crunchy granola or whole-grain cereal.
•              Pack Breakfast to Go. When early morning games make sit-down breakfasts difficult, pack a bag with bananas, apples, string cheese, yogurt cups, homemade trail mix with some granola or whole grain cereal included in the mix, and a box of 100% veggie/fruit juice, a smoothie or low-fat milk, for eating on the run.
•              Pack a Super-Snack Bag. Traveling athletes need smart fuel. Fill an insulated bag with high-energy snacks. Use frozen juice boxes, water bottles or reusable gel packs to keep items cold. Prepare for pre- and post-game snack attacks with crackers and cheese, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, trail mix, containers of cut-up fruit and sliced vegetables with dip. Take it easy on the cheese, peanut butter, nuts and dips until after the game, though--too much fat will slow you down.

Landon Donovan, right, played for his high schools team before going on to lead the U.S. national team in the World Cup. Gar-Field High student Dario Redondo, left, played for D.C. United Academy during his senior year instead of the Indians. (/D.C. United photo/1999 photo by Gabriel Luis Acosta/San Bernadino Sun)

Why eat carbohydrates?

Soccer players need plenty of good carbohydrates for energy during practice and games. If you don’t eat enough, you’ll get tired easily and you’ll slow down and feel exhausted before the game’s half over!

A little more than half of your calories should come from carbohydrates. The trick is to choose your carbs wisely. There are two main types of carbs: refined carbs (think: foods made with lots of sugar or highly processed grains, like white bread) and complex carbs (the “good” kind).

Simple sugars in foods like fruit juice, jams and jellies, sodas and candy have lots of calories, but no vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients. Eating a little of these is ok, but eating lot will give you a quick burst of energy that’ll last maybe 15 minutes or so. After that, your energy levels will drop, you won’t be able to think straight, and you’ll be worn out before you know it. In other words, they set you up to crash and burn.   

Complex carbohydrates are the kind that’ll keep you going strong for the entire game. You can find them in foods like pasta, whole grain breads and cereals (not sugary cereals like Frosted Flakes!), beans, peas, corn, sweet potatoes, potatoes and fruits. They give you long-lasting energy, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

When it comes to bread, pasta and other foods made from flour, you’ll get a lot more nutrition and power from the kinds made with whole grains (i.e. 100% whole wheat flour, whole oats, stone-ground corn, popcorn, etc.), so make sure you read the ingredients on the labels carefully (not just the front of the label) and don’t be fooled by marketing—“All Natural” does NOT mean it’s healthy, and “made with whole grain” is NOT the same as “100% whole grain." The latter is truly good for you, while the former may have just a pinch of whole grain flour and a ton of the refined stuff (which is sometimes cleverly called "wheat flour" or "unbleached wheat flour" on the label--just remember that if it doesn't say ""100% whole," it't not whole grain!). 


Protein is important for muscle growth and to repair body tissues. It won’t give you more muscle—only exercise can do that—but it will give your body the tools it needs to build strong muscles during and after exercise.

But soccer players and other athletes don’t need a ton of extra protein, either. Most people already eat almost twice as much protein as they need, so the needs for muscle development are already met. You can easily cover your daily protein needs by eating 3-5 servings of any of the following: meat, poultry, fish or tofu (3 oz), eggs (1), dairy foods (1 cup), nuts or peanuts (1 oz), or a grain-bean combo such as beans and rice (1 cup).   

Steer clear of eating too many protein bars or powders and choose your bars, powders and shakes carefully. Some of the bars are just candy bars in disguise, while some actually give you too much protein! Too much protein can actually hurt your performance on the field because it can dehydrate you (which will slow you down and hurt your ability to think and make good decisions), and it makes your body excrete (get rid of) calcium. And in addition to building strong bones, calcium is important for moving your muscles, so it’s not something you want to lose! If you're going to eat them, look for bars or shakes that give you no more than 20 g of protein per serving (I like Usana Health Sciences gluten-free protein snacks and Nutrimeal shakes--especially their Nutrimeal Free, which tastes great, and is gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free and fructose-free) --and make sure to drink lots of water along with your bar or shake. 

Water and fluids

Water is the most important, and overlooked, nutrient for athletes. Water and fluids are essential to body hydrated and at the right temperature. Your body can lose several liters of sweat in a 1-hour period.

Clear urine is a good sign that you have fully rehydrated. Some suggestions for keeping hydrated are:

•              Drink plenty of fluids with every meal, whether or not you will be exercising. It’ll help your body get the most nutrients from your food.
•              Drink about 16 ounces (2 cups) of water 2 hours before a game or practice.  Having enough water will help your muscles perform better; it’ll also help you think clearly enough to make split-second decisions on the field.
•              Sip water during and after the game/practice -- about 1/2 to 1 cup every 15 to 20 minutes. Water is best for the first hour.  After an hour of hard playing, water mixed with 100% fruit juice or sports drinks are ok, but not energy drinks—they’re loaded with caffeine. Drink even if you don’t feel thirsty. Kids don’t respond to thirst as well as adults.
•              After the game, drink your milk. New research shows low-fat chocolate milk, may be one of the most effective beverages for muscle recovery after intense activity.

What about fruits and veggies?

Eat as many—and as many different colors--as you can (green broccoli, oranges, blueberries, red tomatoes, and more)! They give you the vitamins and minerals your body needs to convert the energy in food to fuel for your muscles; and they’ll keep you from getting sick and missing a game. Plus, they’ve got tons of phytonutrients, plant chemicals that help heal sore muscles and will even help keep your skin and hair looking great!

Your body needs plenty of fruits and veggies—at least 5-9 servings every day, to be exact. If you can’t eat that many, you may want to consider taking a good quality multi-vitamin to get all the nutrition you need.   "Nearly two-thirds of children fail to get the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for vitamin E and zinc.  Half do not meet the RDA for calcium, and close to one-third fall short of the RDA of vitamin B6," says pediatrician and author Dr. Christine Wood. In her practice, Dr. Wood recommends vitamins from Usana Health Sciences (and so do I) because they’re made to pharmaceutical quality and they’ve earned top ratings year after year.  [You can learn more about Usana at]

Practice and game days: When and what to eat

You need to eat good-quality carbs on practice and game days, and any time when you’ll be exercising for more than 1 hour. You might have a light carb snack such as a piece of fruit (bananas or oranges are great!), a cup of low-fat yogurt, a low-fat granola bar, or a whole grain English muffin with a little jelly an hour or two beforehand.

During practice or a game, you really only need carbohydrates if you’re on the field and working hard most of the time (more than an hour) or on really hot days. Here are a few snack ideas that will give you the energy you need without weighing you down:

·         Two to three handfuls of pretzels
·         One-half to two-thirds cup of low-fat granola
·         A banana, apple or orange

After exercise, eat a small snack with carbohydrates and a little protein (i.e. low-fat chocolate milk, a granola bar, a banana with peanut butter, a yogurt and an apple, small bowl of cereal and milk, etc.) within 30-45 minutes after your game or practice. This fuels your muscles and helps you perform better next time you play, kind of like filling your own, personal gas tank.

Think of eating healthy as your “secret weapon” against your opponents—something that’ll give you the edge you need to take your game to the next level. The one thing you need to know to make this weapon work for you is that you’ve got to use it almost every day. It won’t work if you eat healthy one day, then go out and have a triple cheeseburger, fries and a shake every other day of the week.  Now, I’m not saying you can’t ever have another milkshake. Having a treat once in a while (say once a week) is ok. Just make sure to get back on track after that, and you’re sure to start noticing a difference in your game before long. 

Kathy Sanchez, MS
Adjunct Professor of Nutrition, George Mason University
Nutrition and Health Communication Consultant