Food and Young Athletes: 10 Simple Things You Can Do to Improve the Health and Well Being of Your Athlete and the Entire Family

By Dana Buchanan | “You are what you eat,” a simple (and perhaps overused), yet profound phrase. It also happens to be true. Young people today are driven from school to practice to music to dance to scouting to… it goes on and on. They shove fast food in their mouths while changing in the car, and sometimes they don’t have time to eat at all. Our food system has been hijacked by major food manufacturers whose only interest is in their bottom line, and not nutrition. The money spent on marketing junk food to our children could run an average sized country. We, as a society, have gotten away from knowing where our food comes from and what real food tastes like.

Fortunately, there is a trend emerging, which is heading back in the right direction. With the local, seasonal, sustainable movement happening all across the country, we are re-claiming our food resources from big corporate producers and putting them into the hands of local farmers and families. With that reclamation comes a responsibility for all of us to actively participate in obtaining the best nutrition possible.

Here are ten simple things you can do to start on the path of contributing to optimum health of your young athlete, and at the same time your entire family.

Labels: Get Out Your Reading Glasses

You know that really tiny writing that is on most packages, usually on the back or hidden somewhere under a fold of the packaging? Well, forget the colorful marketing graphics on the front of the product and head straight there. You will find everything you need to know about what you are purchasing. The product will probably not be good for your athlete if it doesn’t pass these three easy questions:

  • If there are more than 8 ingredients listed. (How many ingredients in an apple? One. You get the picture.)
  • If there are ingredients that a 3rd grader can’t read or pronounce. We call this “sciencese,” a language that should be reserved for rocket scientists, not a parent looking for the best food for their child.
  • If sugar is the first thing on the list, if there is high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils or trans fats, then you are not going to find much in the way of real food listed. Our bodies don’t know what to do with these man-made food substitutes, which are not good for anyone and represent some of the worst empty calories.

Carbohydrates: When Complex is Better

White sugar, white flour, white rice, white bread. White food is not your friend (well, except for jicama, that is really good). White foods have basically had their nutrients removed. They turn into sugar instantly in your system and don’t give the staying power that is offered by complex carbohydrates. Oatmeal that takes 20 minutes to cook retains the whole grain and therefore, all the nutrients contained within. Processed grains have been stripped of their nutrients are now empty calories (not good).

It’s always better to go for the brown rice, naturally brown sugar, whole wheat flour and grains. Some grains not yet popular in the USA are chia, quinoa and amaranth, all of which were main staples for the Aztecs, and are three of the most complex grains that are also full of protein. Any of these grains, along with whole oats, would make an excellent hot breakfast cereal.

Breakfast: The Single Most Important Meal of the Day

If your young athlete is skipping breakfast or having a doughnut and Sunny Delight, this is for you. The doughnut (made of white flour, white sugar and cooked in trans-fat oils) and Sunny Delight (just sugar, water and food coloring–check the label, no orange juice) are going to last your child about ½ hour, followed by a crash in energy level. A breakfast of slow cooked oatmeal (or any of the grains mentioned above), an egg and a banana is going to last all the way to lunch time.

It takes approximately 3-5 minutes to cook an egg, about 2 minutes to make a piece of whole wheat toast and bananas come in their own convenient wrappers, ready to go. If you cook up a big batch of oatmeal on Sunday and just pop a bowl in the microwave for 1 minute, that’s how long it will take in the mornings. It’s easy, with a little planning ahead and getting into a new routine. Your young athlete needs fuel to perform their sport and to keep their brain functioning; the best way to provide consistent nutrients and energy throughout their day is through more meals.

“Three Squares”: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner AND…

Breakfast, lunch and dinner; the ‘normal’ way for Americans to eat. It works for most of us, but not so well for a young athlete that is in practice 10 to 30 hours each week–they really need the “AND”! Mid-Morning is not as important if their breakfast has been a good one, but if it hasn’t (remember the doughnuts that only lasted ½ hour?) it’s time for an apple and string cheese or an orange and some almonds. Lunch should be substantial and contain complex carbohydrates and protein: things like whole grains, lean meats or fish (or tofu, etc. if your athlete is a vegetarian), legumes, fresh vegetables and fruits. If their school does not provide these choices for lunch, it’s best to pack a lunch.

The other important meal is pre-workout. Depending upon when your young athlete does their major work-out of the day, they need to have a good amount of complex carbohydrates about 1 hour prior. If this meal is in the late afternoon or early evening then they will want a regular dinner post-workout. This meal could be a little lighter, focusing more on protein and vegetables. Some athletes work out for extended periods or are in need of ‘replenishment’ during games or tournaments.

Play All Day? What to Eat During Practice, Games and Tournaments

The needs can vary quite a bit, depending upon sport, single game vs. tournament play, practice schedule, etc. The basic thing to remember is the need to keep their energy at optimum levels by supplying foods that will sustain them and not bog them down.

For instance, smaller meals that are not too heavy timed between games in a tournament to allow for digestion. If time doesn’t allow try some of the better energy gels that are on the market (Hammer Gel is a pretty good one that is made with natural ingredients). By all means stay away from heavy foods that take a long time to digest, and empty calories that will not support their need for fuel.

Treats, Sweets and Candy: When Quality Does Matter

The focus here is on the word ‘treat’. Sweets and candy are okay in moderation and sometimes can provide a little placebo incentive for young athletes that are feeling discouraged. Something a little sweet every now and then is not going to hurt, but again, look at the quality and the label. There are treats out there that contain better ingredients. Lara Bars are one of the better ones we have found and there are others.

Just be aware of ‘energy’ bars that claim to be healthy and are not; read the labels and you may be surprised what you will find in a ‘health’ bar. Most candies are nothing but sugar (high fructose corn syrup) and food coloring. You are better off with a good piece of dark chocolate (with a high cacao content)–good chocolate contains enzymes that can actually elevate mood and improve performance.

Sodas and Sports Drinks: More Harm than Good

Sodas are the number one culprit in the epidemic of childhood obesity today. If you take one thing away from reading this article, it should be this: stop drinking sodas and have your kids stop drinking sodas. Preservatives, sugar, man-made ingredients–there is nothing of nutritional value in sodas, ever. Most sports drinks fall in the same category. In fact, they are detrimental to the health of our children. The makers of sodas know how to make them addictive.

There has recently been a decrease in soda consumption in the U.S. resulting in the manufacturers of sodas introducing ‘flavored waters’ in the attempt to hold onto market share. Don’t be fooled by their health claims for these waters, read the labels. Water right out of the tap is the best thing you can offer your children; beyond that, read labels!

Fruits, Veggies, Juice: Yes We Can!

Whole is better! It is always better to eat whole fruits and vegetables than to drink the juice. The amount of fiber that is provided in whole foods is important to keep the digestive system working at an optimum level. Apple slices or a whole tangerine vs. apple or orange juice is the way to go. If you want juice, again, check the label (remember Sunny Delight? Not juice.) Frozen from concentrate is fine as long as there are no other sugars added.

There are many juices available today that contain fruit and vegetables in them. Consumer Reports found Juicy Juice Harvest Surprise Grape and V8 V-Fusion Pomegranate Blueberry were the highest rated in their recent taste test with children. While most kids love fruits, vegetables can sometimes be a challenge (by the way, french fries are not a vegetable).

It’s been said that you have to offer a child something new 15-20 times before they will try it, so don’t be discouraged, just keep at it. One of the most-liked cooked vegetables for kids seems to be zucchini. Salads are also a great way to introduce veggies. Cucumbers, carrots and cherry tomatoes dipped in a little ranch are easy and most kids love them. Interestingly, we have found that kids are more interested in vegetables if they are involved in growing them.

Grow Your Own: The Single Best Way to Get Kids to Eat Veggies!

Does your child really know where their food comes from? There are many studies that have proven an increase in vegetable consumption by children when they are involved in the growing process. There is a major trend for school and community gardens that has had a positive effect on children’s diets.

If you don’t have access to a community garden you have two options. First, if you have a small sunny spot in your yard (it doesn’t have to be in the backyard, lots of homes have large front lawns, you could dig up a portion) you can garden right at home. Some crops that are easy to start with are radishes, lettuces, broccoli, zucchini, carrots and tomatoes. There are lots of resources for getting started. If you don’t have a plot of dirt, most of the veggies listed above can be grown successfully in pots, too. Growing your own food can be a rewarding family experience.

Family Meals: Happy is The Family that Eats Together

There are plenty of studies out there showing that family meals lead to healthier, more well-adjusted children. They experience more academic success, have healthier bodies and fewer emotional and behavior problems. If you cannot sit down and have dinner together every night, try to plan at least 2 or 3 nights a week to eat as a family.

Turn off the TV, get out the nice dishes, light some candles and dine together. Have some nice conversation while enjoying the company of your children and each other. Celebrate the successes of the day and share the challenges. Enjoy what you are eating, talk about food, and enjoy something you have picked fresh that day. If you can’t do dinner, try breakfast as your family meal of the day. The important thing is to sit together as a family. If you can do this one thing, guaranteed you will see a change in your children and, most likely, your whole family.

Dana Buchanan is the co-owner of Primal Alchemy Catering and Events. She along with her husband and partner, Chef Paul Buchanan are long-time advocates for children’s nutrition. They have run the Days of Taste program for 11 years and were recently included in Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution show. As a member of Leadership Long Beach (2010) Dana was instrumental in producing the first Healthy Kids Summit and is a charter member of Long Beach Alliance for Food and Fitness. Dana and Chef Paul have worked closely with Long Beach Unified School District to improve the school lunch program.

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