If you are an athlete, you need to fuel your body to perform well. But did you know certain foods can also help prevent injury? This is especially true for younger athletes whose bodies are still growing and therefore need more nutrients. So, it’s essential that school-age athletes not only take in enough food for fuel but also eat the right foods for strength and stamina.
We asked Dawn Holmes, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, sports dietitian at OhioHealth Physician Group Sports Medicine and Primary Care, to tell us which foods provide the nutrition that will help prevent injury.
Avoiding relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S) is critical. This medical condition occurs when athletes don’t get enough food to support their energy needs. If not treated, the deficit gets worse and, over time, damages endurance, strength and health.
RED-S can adversely affect an athlete’s:
- Reproductive health
- Bone health
- Heart health
- Psychological health
RED-S often leads to injury because athletes are not getting the nutrition their bodies need to prevent the condition. If you take only one thing away from this blog, please make it this: No matter what an athlete eats, they must eat enough food to maintain good health.
The work of food groups
Each food group has a job based on the nutrients those foods contain. Your body’s primary energy source is the carbohydrates found in grains, fruits and vegetables. Your muscles rely on proteins to repair themselves after tough workouts. Your bones need calcium-rich food like dairy, soy-based foods or broccoli to grow and be strong. Your brain needs healthy fats to stay sharp.
Nutrients both multitask and work together to nourish your body. For example, when you eat carbohydrates and proteins together, your energy levels are raised and sustained over a longer period than if you ate carbs alone. Also, when you eat fruits and vegetables, you’ll both reduce inflammation and produce energy.
Just like your body needs different types of workouts, it also needs different kinds of food. Every food offers its own set of nutrients. Try to eat all the colors of the rainbow in fruits and vegetables and different types of proteins and grains.
For these reasons, Holmes recommends that athletes eat a variety of foods rich in calcium, carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats at every meal to get the maximum benefits of each food.
But what about vitamins and minerals?
Vitamins and minerals are important too. There are 13 essential vitamins. Each vitamin has a different job to help keep the body working properly. For example, Vitamin C boosts immunity, reduces inflammation and repairs tissue. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, tomatoes and potatoes. Vitamin D promotes bone health and is found in milk, fatty fish and fortified cereals. Folate helps turn carbohydrates into energy and is found in broccoli, brussels sprouts, spinach, nuts and beans. Minerals also help your body function. Calcium, magnesium and potassium are essential, especially for young people. Athletes can get these minerals by eating a varied and healthy diet.
Your daily food requirements depend on many things, including your age, size and activity level. Parents should ask their children’s pediatrician for advice. But, in general, Holmes suggests that young athletes need to eat:
- 2 cups of fruit per day
- 3-5 cups of veggies per day
- 3-4 servings of dairy or calcium-rich foods (a serving equals 1 cup milk, 1-ounce cheese or ¾ cup yogurt)
- 8-12 servings of grains, depending on activity (a serving equals ½ cup oatmeal or rice, or 1 slice of bread)
Your body needs fluids to prevent cramping and overheating, especially in hot weather and when completing longer workouts. A good rule of thumb is that teenage girls should drink 10 cups of fluids a day, teenage boys should drink 14 cups, and adults should drink half of their body weight in ounces of fluids daily. This is the baseline. Athletes should add 16-20 ounces of fluids for each hour they are active, regardless of age.
Water is the ultimate source of hydration, but milk, 100% juice, and sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade can be appropriate, too. However, energy drinks are not recommended. These drinks have extra sugar and caffeine, which will lead to cramping and jitteriness.
Sports can teach kids teamwork and sportsmanship and promote their overall health and well-being. The best way to prevent injury in young athletes is to feed them a balanced diet that includes nutrition from all food groups and plenty of water. Holmes said it best, “Your body is like a battery. It needs to be charged every three to four hours to keep your brain and muscles fueled so you can stay focused and healthy.”