There's a lot more to eating for sports than chowing down on carbs or chugging
sports drinks. The good news is that eating to reach your peak performance level likely
doesn't require a special diet or supplements. It's all about working the right foods
into your fitness plan in the right amounts.
Teen athletes have unique nutrition needs. Because athletes work out more than
their less-active peers, they generally need extra calories to fuel both their sports
performance and their growth. Depending on how active they are, teen athletes
may need anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 total calories per day to meet their energy
So what happens if teen athletes don't eat enough? Their bodies are less likely
to achieve peak performance and may even break down rather than build up muscles.
Athletes who don't take in enough calories every day won't be as fast and as strong
as they could be and may not be able to maintain their weight. And extreme calorie
restriction can lead to growth problems and other serious health risks for both girls
and guys, including increased risk for fractures and other injuries.
Athletes and Dieting
Since teen athletes need extra fuel, it's usually a bad idea to diet. Athletes
in sports where weight is emphasized — such as wrestling, swimming, dance, or
gymnastics — might feel pressure to lose weight, but they need to balance that
choice with the possible negative side effects mentioned above.
If a coach, gym teacher, or teammate says that you need to go on a diet, talk to
your doctor first or visit a dietitian who specializes in teen athletes. If a health
professional you trust agrees that it's safe to diet, then he or she can work with
you to develop a plan that allows you get the proper amount of nutrients, and perform
your best while also losing weight.
Eat a Variety of Foods
You may have heard about "carb loading" before a game. But when it comes to powering
your game for the long haul, it's a bad idea to focus on only one type of food.
Carbohydrates are an important source of fuel, but they're only one of
many foods an athlete needs. It also takes vitamins, minerals, protein, and fats to
stay in peak playing shape.
Muscular Minerals and Vital Vitamins
Calcium helps build the strong bones that athletes depend on, and iron carries
oxygen to muscles. Most teens don't get enough of these minerals, and that's especially
true of teen athletes because their needs may be even higher than those of other teens.
To get the iron you need, eat lean (not much fat) meat, fish, and poultry; green,
leafy vegetables; and iron-fortified cereals. Calcium — a must for protecting
against stress fractures — is found in dairy foods, such as low-fat milk, yogurt,
In addition to calcium and iron, you need a whole bunch of other vitamins and minerals
that do everything from help you access energy to keep you from getting sick. Eating
a balanced diet, including lots of different fruits and veggies, should provide the
vitamins and minerals needed for good health and sports performance.
Athletes may need more protein than less-active teens, but most teen athletes get
plenty of protein through regular eating. It's a myth that athletes need a huge daily
intake of protein to build large, strong muscles. Muscle growth comes from regular
training and hard work. And taking in too much protein can actually harm the body,
causing dehydration, calcium loss, and even kidney problems.
Good sources of protein are fish, lean meats and poultry, eggs, dairy, nuts, soy,
and peanut butter.
Carbohydrates provide athletes with an excellent source of fuel. Cutting back on
carbs or following low-carb diets isn't a good idea for athletes because restricting
carbohydrates can cause a person to feel tired and worn out, which ultimately affects
Good sources of carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, and grains. Choose whole
grains (such as brown rice, oatmeal, whole-wheat bread) more often than their more
processed counterparts like white rice and white bread. That's because whole grains
provide both the energy athletes need to perform and the fiber and other nutrients
they need to be healthy.
Sugary carbs such as candy bars or sodas are less healthy for athletes because
they don't contain any of the other nutrients you need. In addition, eating candy
bars or other sugary snacks just before practice or competition can give athletes
a quick burst of energy and then leave them to "crash" or run out of energy before
they've finished working out.
Everyone needs a certain amount of fat each day, and this is particularly true
for athletes. That's because active muscles quickly burn through carbs and need fats
for long-lasting energy. Like carbs, not all fats are created equal. Experts advise
athletes to concentrate on eating healthier fats, such as the unsaturated fat found
in most vegetable oils, some fish, and nuts and seeds. Try to not to eat too much
trans fat – like
partially hydrogenated oils – and saturated fat, that is found in high fat meat
and high fat dairy products, like butter.
Choosing when to eat fats is also important for athletes. Fatty foods can slow
digestion, so it's a good idea to avoid eating these foods for a few hours before
and after exercising.
Protein and energy bars don't do a whole lot of good,
but they won't really do you much harm either. Energy drinks have lots of caffeine,
though, so no one should drink them before exercising.
Anabolic steroids can
seriously mess with a person's hormones, causing side effects like testicular shrinkage
and baldness in guys and facial hair growth in girls. Steroids can cause mental health
problems, including depression and serious mood swings.
Some supplements contain hormones that are related to testosterone (such as dehydroepiandrosterone,
or DHEA for short). These supplements can have similar side effects to anabolic steroids.
Other sports supplements (like creatine, for example) have not been tested in people
younger than 18. So the risks of taking them are not yet known.
Salt tablets are another supplement to watch out for. People take them to avoid
dehydration, but salt tablets can actually lead to dehydration. In large amounts,
salt can cause nausea, vomiting, cramps, and diarrhea and may damage the lining of
the stomach. In general, you are better off drinking fluids in order to maintain hydration.
Any salt you lose in sweat can usually be made up with sports drinks or food eaten
Speaking of dehydration,
water is just as important to unlocking your game power as food.
When you sweat during exercise, it's easy to become overheated, headachy, and worn
out — especially in hot or humid weather. Even mild dehydration can affect an
athlete's physical and mental performance.
There's no one-size-fits-all formula for how much water to drink. How much fluid
each person needs depends on the individual's age, size, level of physical activity,
and environmental temperature.
Experts recommend that athletes drink before and after exercise as well as every
15 to 20 minutes during exercise. Don't wait until you feel thirsty, because thirst
is a sign that your body has needed liquids for a while. But don't force yourself
to drink more fluids than you may need either. It's hard to run when there's a lot
of water sloshing around in your stomach!
If you like the taste of sports drinks better than regular water, then it's OK
to drink them. But it's important to know that a sports drink is really no better
for you than water unless you are exercising for more than 60 to 90 minutes or in
really hot weather. The additional carbohydrates and electrolytes may improve performance
in these conditions, but otherwise your body will do just as well with water.
Avoid drinking carbonated drinks or juice because they could give you a stomachache
while you're competing.
Never drink energy drinks before exercising. Energy drinks contain
a large amount of caffeine and other ingredients that have caffeine-like effects.
Caffeine is a diuretic.
That means it causes a person to urinate (pee) more. It's not clear whether this causes
dehydration or not, but to be safe, it's wise to stay away from too much caffeine.
That's especially true if you'll be exercising in hot weather.
When it comes to caffeine and exercise, it's good to weigh any benefits against
potential problems. Although some studies find that caffeine may help adults perform
better in endurance sports, other studies show too much caffeine may hurt.
Caffeine increases heart rate and blood pressure. Too much caffeine can leave an
athlete feeling anxious or jittery. Caffeine can also cause trouble sleeping. All
of these can drag down a person's sports performance. Plus, taking certain medications
— including supplements — can make caffeine's side effects seem even worse.
Never drink energy drinks before exercising. These products contain a large amount
of caffeine and other ingredients that have caffeine-like effects.
Your performance on game day will depend on the foods you've eaten over the past
several days and weeks. But you can boost your performance even more by paying attention
to the food you eat on game day. Strive for a game-day diet rich in carbohydrates,
moderate in protein, and low in fat.
Here are some guidelines on what to eat and when:
Eat a meal 2 to 4 hours before the game or event: Choose a protein
and carbohydrate meal (like a turkey or chicken sandwich, cereal and milk, chicken
noodle soup and yogurt, or pasta with tomato sauce).
Eat a snack less than 2 hours before the game: If you haven't
had time to have a pre-game meal, be sure to have a light snack such as low-fiber
fruits or vegetables (like plums, melons, cherries, carrots), crackers, a bagel, or
Consider not eating anything for the hour before you compete or have practice because
digestion requires energy — energy that you want to use to win. Also, eating
too soon before any kind of activity can leave food in the stomach, making you feel
full, bloated, crampy, and sick.
Everyone is different, so get to know what works best for you. You may want to
experiment with meal timing and how much to eat on practice days so that you're better
prepared for game day.
Want to get an eating plan personalized for you? Check the U.S. government's website
ChooseMyPlate.gov, which tells a person
how much to eat from different food groups based on age, gender, and activity level.