A well-balanced diet is essential for growing athletes to maintain proper growth and optimize performance in athletic endeavors. Sports specific skills like endurance, strength, speed, and power are necessary for enhancing the performance of an athlete. A balanced diet will help the body to improve on these essential skills and enable an athlete to be at his/her best.

The diet of an athlete should contain the required nutrition to replenish energy levels and cope with the demands of training and competition. Apart from energy requirements, the diet should also include other essential nutrients that are important for recovery.

Food Pyramid:

The design of the food pyramid makes healthy eating easier. Healthy eating is about getting the correct amount of five essential nutrients – carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals. By making wise choices within these food groups, like selecting low-fat and high-fiber foods, an athlete can attain great health benefits.

Following the Food Pyramid as a guide will help to get the right balance of nutritious foods within the calorie range.

Carbohydrates:

Carbohydrates are essential to an athlete as it is a good source of our energy. During digestion, it is broken down into glucose and stored in our body. This glucose is what acts as fuel for any physical activity. An athlete cannot perform at his/her peak level without the required amounts of carbohydrates. Low quantities of carbohydrates can cause the body to use up muscle proteins for energy. Carbohydrates should ideally comprise about 45% to 65% of total caloric intake in teens.

Good sources of carbohydrates are potatoes, rice, pasta, beans, bread, etc. Fruits, milk, and yogurt also have proper amounts of carbohydrates. Vegetables have lesser quantities of carbohydrates. 

Proteins:

Proteins are the building blocks of our bodies. It repairs muscles and tissues that break down during physical activity. Diet for an athlete must include quality proteins to make sure that their body recovers quickly. It is necessary for muscle growth and strength. Some researches mention that an athlete looking for muscle growth should consume 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of their body weight.

Sources of protein include lean meat and poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, beans, and nuts.

 Fats:

As an energy source, fats are essential for light to moderate intensity exercises and endurance exercises. Apart from being an energy source, fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids are also required for the body to function efficiently.

Young athletes must consume polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats that have more benefits. Fish, nuts, seeds, canola, avocado, and olive oil are sources of unsaturated fats. The focus should be on an intake of healthy fat from plant oils and soft margarine made with vegetable oils and on limiting the amounts of fried and processed foods.

In the U.S., cheese, pizzas, dairy products, and meat products are the largest food sources of saturated fat. It is advisable to keep your intake of saturated fats as low as possible.

Vitamins and Minerals:

Vitamins and minerals are critical for many functions of the body. Without them, the body cannot use the energy from carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. They are also useful for muscle relaxation and recovery. Athletes must consume proper amounts of calcium, vitamin D, and iron. 

The B-vitamins include thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B-6, B-12, and folate. They help to maintain good cell health, eyesight, digestion, and appetite. They are essential to improve the performance and endurance of an athlete. It also helps in the growth of red blood cells and healthy brain functioning. Milk, eggs, meat, fish, fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables are some great sources of vitamin B.

Vitamin D has necessary functions in the body, including the maintenance of good bone health, muscle function, and immunity. Levels of vitamin D also vary depending on geographical location and race. Athletes living in northern latitudes or who train indoors (example: figure skaters, gymnasts, dancers) are more likely to be vitamin D deficient. Exposure to the Sun and fortified foods are sources of vitamin D.

Calcium is essential for bone health, proper enzyme activity, and muscle contraction. A variety of foods like milk, yogurt, cheese, broccoli, spinach, fortified grain products, and beverages contain calcium.

Iron is necessary for oxygen delivery to body tissues. During adolescence, more iron is essential for an increase in blood volume, lean muscle mass, and to support growth. Iron-rich foods include green leafy vegetables, eggs, lean meat, and fortified whole grains.

Drinks:

Sweating causes a loss of salts and water from the body. Water is also continually lost while breathing and through the skin. Small losses of water do not affect performance, but severe dehydration is harmful. Maintaining proper hydration levels is necessary for an athlete.

Salt replacement is necessary when sweat losses are high, but needs vary between athletes. In some situations, athletes over-hydrate during exercise by drinking more than their sweat losses. Excessive fluid intake can lead to a problem called hyponatremia (dilution of blood sodium concentrations). It’s seen in recreational exercisers who work at low intensities but drink large volumes of fluid. An adequate intake of fluids before, during (where appropriate), and after exercise is especially important in hot climates.

Fruit juices contain Vitamins, Minerals, and antioxidants, but it lacks fiber and is loaded with sugar. Drinks such as fruit smoothies, liquid meal supplements, and fortified milkshakes can provide a substantial source of energy and nutrients.

Caffeine stimulates the brain and contributes to clearer thinking and greater concentration. The stimulating effects of caffeine can start as early as 15 minutes after consumption and last up to 6 hours. There can be negative consequences of caffeine consumption, particularly if ingested in high doses. Consuming more than 500-600 mg of caffeine a day may lead to insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, irritability, an upset stomach, a fast heartbeat, and even muscle tremors and even death. Other than coffee, caffeine consumption happens through tea, soft drinks, energy drinks, and chocolate. Some prescriptions such as allergy, cold, and pain medication also contain caffeine.

Some reports suggest that consuming three cups of coffee a day may reduce the risk of liver cancer by 50%. It may even protect against type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, cardiovascular diseases, and stroke, while another study suggests that drinking four cups a day could cut the risk of mouth and throat cancer by half.

Caffeine can be mildly addictive. Drinking a single can of 330 ml a day of sugary drinks translates to more than 1lb of weight gain every month. Researchers have found evidence that soft drinks sweetened with high fructose may contribute to the development of diabetes.

Often, people drink soda to quench thirst. Drinking soda can cause fat to build-up around the organs and almost doubles the amount of fat around the liver. It raises LDL (also known as bad cholesterol) levels, triglyceride levels, and blood pressure, and a 10% increase in stroke risk. Sodas contain high levels of phosphoric acid and high fructose corn syrup, which leads to kidney stones and other kidney diseases. Drinking as little as two soft drinks per week could double the risk of getting pancreatic cancer. Due to the phosphoric acid content, drinking soda could harm bone mineral density, especially in women, which may result in Osteoporosis and increased fracture risk.

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Eating Guidelines:

Each athlete is different, and there is no single diet that always meets the needs of all athletes. Individual needs also change across the seasons to which athletes must learn to adapt.

Generally, meals should be taken a minimum of 3 hours before any physical activity to allow for proper digestion and to minimize the incidence of gastrointestinal upset during exercise. For early morning practices or events, have a snack or liquid meal 1-2 hours before exercising. Have a full breakfast after the event to ensure sufficient energy to maximize performance. Recovery foods should be consumed within 30 min of exercise and again within 1-2 hours of activity to allow muscles to rebuild and ensure proper recovery.

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Vegetarians:

Many athletes choose to be vegetarians. However, athletes must be more aware of the food choices that they make to maintain energy levels, meet training and recovery needs, and to support proper immune function.

Some athletes may use vegetarianism to restrict energy intake to achieve the desired physique. However, plant protein quality and digestion are decreased and often requires the consumption of approximately 10% more protein if consuming animal proteins is a strict no-no.

Dairy or soy-milk products may be suitable choices for vegetarians and vegans, respectively. If there are no animal foods in the diet, then a vitamin B12 supplement may be necessary. Some vegan food products, such as meat substitutes, are B12 fortified. Vegetarian athletes may also be at risk for low intakes of fat (essential fatty acids are especially important), riboflavin, vitamin D, and zinc that should be monitored and supplemented in the diet if necessary.

Food Supplements:

Many nutrition supplements, including glutamine, zinc, Echinacea, colostrum, and others, claim that they can boost the immune system, but there is no evidence that any of these products are effective.

Healthy bones need a proper supply of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, Vitamins D and C and protein. Many promote the use of glucosamine, chondroitin, methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), and other products for joint health. There is some evidence that long-term (2-6 months) Glucosamine treatment can provide subjective relief in elderly individuals suffering from osteoarthritis, but evidence for their benefits in athletes is not available.

Some supplements do offer the prospect of improved performance for some athletes in specific events. These supplements include creatine, caffeine, bicarbonate, ß-alanine, and perhaps a very few others. Consult a nutritionist before taking any supplements.

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Eating strategies for different sports:

Strength Sports [weightlifting, powerlifting, throwing events, 100-200 m sprints, body building]:

High amounts of carbohydrates before the workout will ensure proper energy levels to perform. Post-workout consume high proteins to repair the muscles and tissues. Consume unsaturated fats in the required quantity for a complete diet. Adopt a suitable method if weight loss is needed to achieve the targets.

For athletes participating in throwing and sprinting events, it is better to keep them hydrated with adequate fluids if the time between events exists. Always take the advice of a nutritionist before supplement use.

Nutrition is key to sports performance

Endurance sports [Marathon, triathlon, road cycling]

Consume adequate carbohydrates, high-quality proteins, and fluids for rehydration to promote muscle adaptation and support during the prolonged training sessions. For events lasting longer than 90 minutes, consider carbohydrate loading over the 2-3 days before the race.

Start with a pre-race meal and hydrate well during the race. Take care of specialized training phases such as altitude training as it may have specific fluids and iron requirements. Consult a nutritionist for the use of sports supplements.

Power sports [Middle distance running, track cycling, rowing canoeing/kayaking, and swimming]

Consume high-quality proteins and carbohydrates soon after the key workouts to promote refueling and adaptation. If there are heats and finals in the events, then it is suggested to refuel with fluids and foods between the events. Power athletes might go for being intracellular (ß-alanine) and extracellular (bicarbonate) supplements but consult an expert before taking them.

Aesthetic and weight class sports [figure skating, gymnastics, diving combating sports, lightweight rowing]

For weight and body, fat goals plan for a diet that is achievable and will support long-term health and performance benefits. To meet the energy requirements, take in carbohydrates and high-quality protein over the day so that you maximize your ability to meet nutritional goals.

Seek intervention at an early stage if development issues with food-related stress when needed to put on weight. Prepare for the competition by fine-tuning your weight. Consult an expert sports nutritionist for the use of supplements if required.

Nutrition for injured athletes:

Poor nutrition can lead to conditions that increase the risk of injury. But injuries are often an unavoidable aspect when participating in physical activity. An injury can be particularly distressing for an athlete with eating-disorders. Psychological support is equally important.

There is a need for modification of food intake when an injury limits activity for less than a week. The need to reduce food intake is necessary to meet lower energy needs. If the recovery is expected to take longer than a week, then long-term recovery may require a reduced diet to prevent fat accumulation and weight gain.

Surgical trauma, fever, or infection requires dietary changes. In these cases, protein intake should be increased during the early stages of recovery to help repair damaged tissues.

Proteins are essential for immunity. If a slow recovery is expected, the injury might cause significant emotional stress. Fear, anxiety, and anger are all typical reactions to injury. These emotions can increase the secretion of epinephrine (adrenaline) from the adrenal gland. It, in turn, can cause a series of metabolic changes that result in increased loss of nitrogen (protein) through the urine.

In general, the importance of psychological support for injured athletes varies depending on the length of recovery and severity of the injury. Injury anxiety about the might lead to increased food cravings. More free time and less structure in the daily routine can lead to boredom and increases opportunities to eat more that may result in weight gain. Some injured athletes do not adjust their energy needs and continue to follow their typical training diet.

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Nutritional need while traveling:

For the good health of an athlete, follow nutritional best practices while traveling. Sports nutrition experts recommend that athletes should have multiple small meals per day (five or six feedings). Traveling with snacks helps to ensure that caloric needs are being met, despite unpredictable travel delays. Carry fresh vegetables and fruits, fruit smoothies, energy bars, nuts, bagels, and raisins while traveling.

Conclusion:

The use of food supplements for young athletes should never be encouraged, and the focus should be on following a nutrient-rich diet. Of the many different dietary aids available to athletes, only a very few may enhance the performance for some athletes when used in guidance of a well-informed professional. To enjoy all the benefits of sport, athletes should adopt specific nutrition strategies that can support good health and optimum mental and physical performance.

Many factors contribute to success in sports that require talent, motivation, training, and resistance to injury. When highly talented and trained athletes gather for competition, the margin between victory and defeat is usually small. When we give attention to details, it can make that vital difference. For a serious athlete, nutrition is one such key element of preparation. 

You can also check interesting nutrition tips by an expert Nutritionist in Cupertino at Mor’s Nutrition & More.