Eat Like a Champion

Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete

 Eat Like a Champion

Author: Jill Castle
Pub Date: July 2015
Print Edition: $16.95
Print ISBN: 9780814436226
Page Count: 256
Format: Paper or Softback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814436233

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Young athletes need skills, training, mental preparation, and nutrition. Success doesn't happen when you leave out any one of these.

--Yan Vengerovskiy, head coach and cofounder, Maritime Rowing

Club/New Canaan High School Crew

Sixteen-year-old Ethan, a rising tennis star, found himself in a progressive performance slump. Losing competitions and struggling to get through his regular training schedule, he mistakenly thought a shoulder injury was dragging him down. After months of physical therapy, he went to his pediatrician, who was alarmed by his lack of growth and sent him to me.

Ethan wasn't any taller than he had been at age 14, and his muscles hadn't filled out as expected. Ethan was putting in time and effort to train, day in and day out, including extra weekend lessons. His tennis plateau wasn't from a lack of effort or an insufficient drive to win. It stemmed from a poor diet. Ethan wasn't eating enough, or nutritiously enough, particularly considering the grueling workout he put in each day.

He was skipping breakfast many mornings, eating a protein bar for lunch, and often turning up late for practice after school, when he would eat another protein bar--or not. Ethan usually felt sick to his stomach and fatigued after practice, so when he got home he didn't want to eat dinner. Instead, he ate late at night, after his homework was done and he had showered and relaxed a bit, while talking with his friends on the phone. Then he ate his favorite foods: a whole pizza or a submarine sandwich and chips.

Ethan was making the mistake many young athletes make. He was missing one of the main ingredients for athletic success: solid nutrition. Unfortunately, Ethan's nutrition had been poor for years, and as a result, he wasn't as tall or as muscular as he wanted to be. Ethan needed a big dose of sports nutrition--not only for his athletic endeavors, but for improved growth and his overall health.

Together, we worked to build a solid nutrition plan, which gave him more calories, nutrients, and fluids, balanced throughout his day. I built more structure and timing into his meals and snacks; asked his mom to have a healthy dinner ready when he returned home from practice; and encouraged Ethan to dump the late-night junk foods. I wanted him to make sure he ate breakfast before he left for school, as this would not only interrupt his overnight fast but set the appetite hormones in motion and nourish his body. Packing healthy snacks in his duffel was critical, as he needed to stay on top of eating all day long, not just as an afterthought or when he felt hungry. I also laid out a hydration plan, gave him tips for boosting calories on tournament weekends, and taught him about the role of food in fueling athletic performance.

Eventually, Ethan overcame his tennis plateau, improved his game, gained muscle weight, and had the resources and knowledge to be motivated to eat for both sport and health.

In this book, I will provide a broad background of knowledge for parents of young athletes like Ethan. I'll share information on the dangers of nutritional imbalances, poor food choices, and improper timing of meals and snacks. Along the way, I'll try to correct misunderstandings about the relationship of food and eating to optimal athletic performance.

Nutrition Is the Secret Weapon

When you think about youth sports and what separates the top performers from the pack, what comes to mind? Why does one young athlete run faster than everyone around him? Jump higher? Hit the ball farther? Get there first?

Perhaps you think sports success comes from a natural gift or raw talent. Or that it takes large sums of money for lessons, equipment, and performance gear. If you're a coach, you may think athletic success is a direct result of precise technique or more training hours in the gym. If you're a nutritionist, like me, you proclaim the power of food and proper fueling. The truth is, it's all of the above: training, gear, and fueling with good nutrition.

Unfortunately, athletes, parents, and coaches often overlook the importance of nutrition for youth sports or misdirect their efforts. Many young athletes don't eat to compete. They're slowed down by fatty, sugary foods, not enough calories, or the wrong (and even dangerous) foods. These poor eating habits can cause them to actually lose in athletic competition, and compromise their lifelong health. And like Ethan, some barely meet average annual growth rates.

Some young athletes munch like mini adult athletes, downing protein shakes and loading up on protein bars. Others eat like toddlers, sticking to kiddie food like chicken nuggets and French fries. Still others may not consume enough calories, or they may overdo it. And an alarming number eat sugary candy and fried foods, more than is good for playing sports or for the growing body

According to a 2011 review study from the University of Minnesota, sports-playing children (6-12 years) and teens (13-18 years) eat some of the worst diets on the planet. On a positive note, the same study showed that young athletes eat more fruits, vegetables, and dairy products (a good thing) than their nonplaying counterparts, but they also consume more fast food, sugar-sweetened beverages, and calories.1

Not only are the diets of young athletes loaded with nutrient-poor, high-calorie foods, the nutrition quality of these foods may be inadequate for playing a sport. In a study of teen soccer players, many athletes were under-fueled (they ate fewer calories than needed) and short on carbohydrates and other nutrients like folate, calcium, and vitamin D; some even showed signs of deficiencies in iron and vitamin D.2 Another study showed that adolescent swimmers were eating more fat than needed, especially the unhealthy kind--saturated fat--and were falling short in recommended amounts of calcium and vitamin D, and in their daily intake of fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy products.3 These studies confirm what is already obvious in the world of youth sports: young athletes aren't fueling for performance. Instead, they are actually creating nutritional deficits that may rob them of their athletic potential.

Ironically, we live in a world where athleticism and physical activity are equated with health and vitality. Some parents believe that keeping a child active is all it takes to prevent poor eating or weight problems. But this is not true. What many parents don't understand is that more training and possessing the latest performance gear aren't enough. Good nutrition is the secret for physical health and athletic ability, now and in the future.

Yes, nutrition is the most overlooked weapon in the arsenal parents can use as they encourage their kids to play youth sports. Whether you're a newbie sports parent looking to make sure your athlete eats well or a veteran parent who wants to eke out every possible advantage, optimal nutrition will make a difference. Get it right and you will reap the rewards of an energetic, focused, fueled athlete who is ready at game time. Get it wrong and you will have the opposite--a distracted, hungry, lethargic athlete who struggles through practices and competitions. A solid nutrition program has the power to launch your young athlete to the next level. By the same token, poor nutrition can keep him in a holding pattern or even worsen his health.

I can't promise you that a healthy diet will translate to a 100% improvement in your child's athletic capabilities (to date no research confirms this), but there is plenty of information that suggests nutrition can make a significant impact on your athlete's performance. The foods and beverages athletes eat can beef them up or lean them out, energize them or slow them down, keep them going or cause them to waver midway through a workout, or even keep them playing instead of being benched due to illness. When thoughtfully planned, the foods we feed our athletes, and how we feed them, can fuel them to the next level of success.

"You've changed the entire way I think about nutrition, and the way I feed my athlete," said Liza, mom of 14-year-old rower Drew, who was striving to find the right balance of food and calories. "I don't even think about food the same way." Liza's new understanding of sports nutrition changed everything for her and her son. And this is exactly what I intend to do for you--change the way you think about food and feeding your young athlete.

Nutrition and the Young Athlete

While participation in youth sports is growing by leaps and bounds, good nutrition is too often sidelined by a lack of proper sports nutrition guidance for young athletes, including a lack of age-appropriate information, inappropriate food offerings on the field, poor eating habits, the time limitations of busy parents, and much more. It's not easy to pull out your secret weapon--solid nutrition--and gain the edge in competition. To deliver good nutrition in today's sports world, you have to jump through a lot of hoops. And that requires understanding what's going on in youth sports. Let's take a look at some of the issues.

Growing Participation

Youth sports are exploding in popularity, and organized sports continue to gain traction. According to a report titled "Go Out and Play: Participation in Team or Organized Sports," prepared by the Women's Sports Foundation, 69% of girls and 75% of boys participate in organized or team sports annually.4 The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) found that some 7.7 million high school students played a sport during the 2012--2013 school year.5 And, about 46.5 million children play sports each year, with children 13 to 14 years old driving the biggest increases in sports participation, according to a survey by the National Sporting Goods Association.6

That's a mind-boggling number of young people who are active in sports. Some of these athletes play recreational sports, participating each week in one to three nights of practice and one or two games. Others are more serious, even elite, athletes who practice most days of the week (sometimes twice daily) and compete more than once a week. Without quality nutrition and the right approach, these athletes risk lackluster performance, nutrient deficiencies, and growth disturbances, as well as a lifetime of bad eating habits.

Missing the Boat

Many parents will pay almost anything to improve their child's athletic skills, according to Mark Hyman in his book The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today's Families.7 He estimates that parents spend thousands of dollars every year to keep their children involved and competitive in sports, footing the bill for camps, club sports, travel, and equipment, even in the face of financial strain. Ironically, parents miss the boat on one of the easiest and most obvious advantages available to them--good nutrition. Powerful, proven, and performance-enhancing, the right nutrition increases the competitive ability and athleticism of just about any athlete.

While we perceive playing sports as a healthy endeavor, it doesn't guarantee that your child will actually be healthy.

Some of the latest information about youth sports suggests that athletes are not automatically becoming healthier because they play sports, in fact, they may be faced with a greater risk of childhood obesity.8 Parents who try to feed their athletes well wrestle with a host of nutrition-related issues: the temptation to eat junk food, food marketing targeted at kids and teens, time pressures, and the normal social-emotional developmental changes that ebb and flow with childhood. The bottom line: it's not easy to raise a healthy athlete.

Another concern is the potential energy demand of sports during a time when young athletes are growing and developing. As athletes crank out grueling workouts, their bodies are tapping into available energy and nutrients for growth. This sets up a unique, once-in-a-lifetime situation for growing athletes. Not only do they need to eat to compete; they also need to eat to grow. If you don't know how to nourish and feed your athlete for growth and sport, you may find that nutrition is your enemy. Poor nutrition can actually work against your best intentions and your child's health and performance.

Barriers to Healthy Nutrition for Your Athlete

The youth sports nutrition world has never been more confusing. One coach advocates a no-sugar diet, while another routinely sips on a Big Gulp soda. One family deals with a crazy sports schedule by routinely visiting the drive-through or calling their favorite take-out joint, while another family devotedly packs up the cooler or turns on the slow cooker. Some athletes take performance aids (supplements), while others guzzle coffee. Even professional athletes smile for the camera, holding a triple-thick Oreo cookie. And let's not ignore the food that litters the fields, courts, and arenas of America's youth sporting venues. The ideal diet is at odds with the reality of the food landscape. Many barriers get in the way of good nutrition for our young athletes. Let's take a closer look at a few:

Nutrition Knowledge. Today's parents are under- prepared for nutrition and the job of feeding their kids than ever before. Fewer than 25% of parents know what foods to feed their kids, and 28% of adults don't know how to cook.9, 10 Even worse, only 77% of parents feel they can limit their kids' exposure to the junk foods and sweets that tempt them every day.11 When it comes to sports nutrition, parents patch together information from books, magazines, and websites, but misinformation abounds, including what foods and fluids to give kids who play sports.12 And when parents do seek out and find information on nutrition, it's more often than not based on recommendations for adult athletes. Using adult nutrition approaches for children and teens can have dangerous consequences, such as those seen with the consumption of energy drinks, which may cause caffeine toxicity, or pushing too much protein, which may cause dehydration and injure the kidneys. All told, parents are often under-informed or misguided when it comes to nutrition for their athletes.

Eating Habits. According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), many kids and teens have poor diets. Twenty-three percent of what kids and teens eat comes from sugary or salty snack foods, while important nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and fiber are crowded out of the diet, resulting in deficits.13 The risk for teens increases as their nutrient requirements shoot up with their growth spurt and the potential for skipping meals dieting or snacking too much unfolds. Teens aged 14 to 18 eat the most sugar (up to 34 teaspoons a day), and 83% of them snack, but not on the right foods.14, 15 Athletes aren't immune to these poor eating habits and food choices; many are missing out on sources of energy and important nutrients for performance, or overdoing it with too many calories, sugar, and fat. And depending on the sport, young athletes may be at risk for disordered eating or a full-blown eating disorder.

Inappropriate Food. Young athletes aren't any better than other kids--they may even be worse--at indulging in the unhealthy food that's front and center at competitions, in the school cafeteria, and in stores and food courts. Whether it is a gigantic double-chocolate-chip muffin or a high-protein energy bar, the truth is that it's not easy to eat "right" outside of the home. Even if healthy food is available, it's often served alongside candy and sweets. One of the biggest challenges is that sporting venues do little to promote the food athletes should be eating, making the healthy choice the hard choice.

Time Crunch. Work schedules and the crush of activities outside the office and workplace--including practices and games on weeknights and weekends-- can lead to stress for parents at mealtime. Making things worse is the fact that many moms and dads have limited cooking skills. To make life easier, families may resort to fast food, take-out, or packaged meals and snacks, which can tip the balance of eating to the unhealthy side.

Persuasive Media. Young athletes are uniquely susceptible to adopting unhealthy behaviors like eating junk food, using performance-enhancing aids, and dieting. The pressure comes from peers, the media, and even professional athletes. Athletes are also lured by the muscular, fit ideal of the athletic body portrayed in magazines and on the Internet and TV. These body "ideals" are hard to come by, especially when you're young and growing or genetically inclined to be bigger or smaller, and may prove problematic to self-esteem and the development of good eating habits.

Nutrition Attitude. You can eat anything and then burn it off exercising--or so the popular myth promises. The young athlete is likely to develop this "eat anything" attitude toward food and nutrition unless parents have a handle on the purpose of food as fuel for exercise. The truth is, the eating patterns of the young athlete become the eating habits of the adult. If kids and teens are loading up on fatty, high-calorie, sugary foods now, they are more likely to do the same as adults, or at least have difficulty controlling their eating of such foods. Childhood habits are hard to break, and excess weight may become a harsh adult reality for the young athlete who's adopted the "eat anything and everything" attitude.

These barriers can make it difficult to feed your athlete a well-balanced, healthy diet tailored to fuel his or her athletic endeavors. Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. While you may feel overwhelmed by the obstacles you face, the right information and strategies can help you raise a healthy, strong, competitive athlete. You just need a reliable resource that lays out the research, translates it in everyday terms, and keeps you and your athlete motivated to be at the top of your nutrition game.

Why You Need Eat Like a Champion

It's not hard for an athlete to get off-track with nutrition. Part of the issue is that parents and coaches narrowly focus on the sport itself and the training that goes along with it, and give little attention to nutrition. The other problem is a lack of sports nutrition resources for the growing child and teen athlete. Until now, that is.

No earlier book has put all the youth sports nutrition information together: current research on young athletes, including factors related to their growth and development; practical strategies for daily eating; and ways to deal with specific nutrition challenges. This is what has been missing in youth sports--a "go to" resource that answers your questions, provides reliable guidance, addresses conflicting information about sports nutrition, and motivates everyone involved with young athletes to do their best with nutrition.

Eat Like a Champion makes the job of fueling top-notch athletes and helping them grow a lot easier.

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