You hear it all the time — getting into shape and staying in shape requires more than just working out, it requires sustaining a healthy and balanced diet.
It may sounds easy, but for most young athletes accomplishing the task of eating healthy is extremely tough. Jackie Barcal, Head of Nutrition at IMG Academy, has worked with a number of athletes through her years and knows what a good diet looks like inside and out. In order to help get you on track with your diet, we spoke with Barcal to find out more.
TT: Trent Tetzlaff, Training Writer.
JB: Jackie Barcal, Head of Nutrition at IMG Academy.
TT: Could you explain how important proper nutrition is for a young athlete?
JB: “Unlike adult athletes who have finished growing, elite youth athletes are unique in that their bodies are still growing and developing. It is during this age in which bone remodeling and growth are occurring at an incredibly fast rate so it’s important they consume enough overall calories and the right nutrients from food, such as vitamin D and calcium, to support this process. Although many athletes don’t tend to value good nutrition until later on in life, it’s important the young athlete, especially at the high school level, learns the value of nutrition to support not only their performance, but long-term athlete development. With more collegiate and professional teams hiring sports dietitians, I have noticed that many athletes are looking to nutrition to assist them in reaching their athletic potential and that message is starting to trickle down to the youth population.”
TT: What are some of the best snack or meals for pre-game or pre-race?
JB: “We like tell our athletes, ‘Nothing new on game day’. This means making sure to eat foods you are used to eating to help avoid digestive issues before or during competition. This also means practicing this ahead of time, so you know what foods sit well in your stomach. Ideally your pre-game meal will occur about 3-4 hours before competition so your body has enough time to digest the food.”
“It is recommended that about a third to a half of your plate is carbs, that you choose lean protein, and include fruit and vegetables. The key is to make sure your meal is low in fat and fiber because they slow digestion. An athlete who eats a high fat, high protein, or high fiber meal too close to competition may experience an upset stomach because the body will still be working to digest that food.
“Good pre-game meals might be: 1) grilled chicken, sweet potatoes, and cooked vegetables, 2) grilled shrimp, brown rice with pineapple, and green beans or 3) eggs, chicken or turkey sausage, since that will be leaner than pork, with whole grain toast and avocado or fruit on the side.”
TT: What are some of the best snacks or meals for post-game or post-race?
JB: “I have found that after games many athletes don’t feel like eating. Physical activity can sometimes suppress hunger, so in that case I would recommend doing something like a fruit smoothie with protein powder to support muscle recovery. The main components of a post-game meal or snack include carbohydrates, protein, and fluid.”
“At IMG we have what are called the three R’s of recovery: refuel, rebuild, and rehydrate. The athlete should refuel with carbs, rebuild with protein, and rehydrate with fluids. An athlete could drink something like a fruit smoothie with 15-20g of protein, or eat something like a turkey sandwich with pretzels and a glass of milk and fruit, or have 6-8 oz. of Greek yogurt topped with granola. Other options might be protein shakes or protein bars which are portable items the athlete can keep in their sport bag.”
TT: For an athlete looking to get stronger, are daily protein shakes after workouts a good addition to a diet?
JB: “I think protein shakes after a workout can be a good addition for an athlete. A lot of research has shown that within that first 45-60 minutes after a workout the muscles are more sensitive to protein and carbohydrates — so getting a protein and carb combo after a workout can be really beneficial Something good about these shakes is they get digested and absorbed into muscles rapidly, so if the athlete has two training sessions or games in a day it can help speed up that recovery process.”
TT: How can you go about adding or cutting weight for your sport effectively?
JB: “In either case, adding or cutting weight, athletes really need to do it slowly over a period of time. Unfortunately, youth athletes aren’t always the best at thinking ahead. But coaches and parents can help them make small adjustments and encourage healthy behaviors that assist them reach their goals over time. Most athletes I’ve worked with who want to lose or gain weight quickly don’t realize that it takes time for your body to adjust to training and competing at that new weight. This is another reason slow losses and gains are important. A good rule of thumb is 1-2 pounds per week on average of either weight loss or gain. Assuming the athlete is training and using appropriate nutritional strategies, at this rate any added weight is likely a reflection of lean muscle gain, as opposed to fat, and any weight loss is likely reflecting a loss in fat, instead of lean muscle. Some athletes, who look to lose weight too quickly, decrease calories so much that they compromise lean muscle and their athletic performance. At times, when an athlete comes to me wanting to lose weight, we may actually increase calories around training to assist in improving energy levels. If their energy is up, odds are they will be able to train harder, and in the long run burn more calories throughout the day because they got more out of their training session.”
TT: What are some of the best diets a young athlete can easily stick to?
JB: “At this age, it’s important for athletes to focus on getting a variety of foods in their diet to help ensure they are meeting their nutrient needs. There seems to be a trend of cutting out certain food groups, like whole grains and dairy, but there are key vitamins and minerals in these foods that can be beneficial for health and performance. In my experience, when athletes build their plate, a lot of white, brown, and yellow colored foods are present. I encourage our athletes here at IMG to get at least 3-4 different and brightly colored foods on their plate at each meal. This gives the athlete a simple goal and often results in a much more balanced and healthier plate.
It’s important to remember that youth athletes are still going to want to eat things like fried food, candy, and soda that aren’t the best for their health or their performance, but that there is also a time and a place for these types of treats. It’s really about finding a balance and finding a time, preferably away from training and competition, when these foods can be incorporated into the athlete’s diet without sacrificing performance.
Lastly, but maybe the most important, an athlete should be fueling on a consistent basis. An athlete could be eating all of the right foods, lean protein, whole grains, vegetables, and fruit, but if they are skipping meals and snacks, they likely aren’t meeting their overall energy or nutrient needs. Youth athletes should aim to fuel their bodies every 3-4 hours. Typically, this breaks down to 3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day. This will help the athlete fuel their mind and body for optimal performance both on the field and in the classroom.