Nutrition: The Basics
To the layperson, the subject of nutrition can sometimes seem complicated but it doesn’t have to be. For parents of young athletes, good nutrition is simply the provision of a good, well-balanced and diverse diet that takes into consideration the additional energy requirements resulting from their sport.
Their bodies will require appropriate amounts of all the necessary nutrients to cater for normal day-to-day life and general health and growth but their additional energy expenditure will mean these amounts will be higher than for a non-athlete.
So, what are nutrients? In short, they are simply the molecules in food that are essential for life. The body needs larger quantities of some (macronutrients) and smaller quantities of others (micronutrients).
Commonly known as ‘carbs’, these are actually sugar molecules that the body turns into glucose. Glucose provides your athlete with the easiest to access, and most abundant form of energy. There are three types:
Sugars - these are ‘simple carbs’ and can be naturally occurring (as in fruit and vegetables), added (as in those added to most processed foods), or free (as in fruit juices, honey, etc). Sugars are quickly absorbed into the body, hence the quick ‘hit’ of energy which can sometimes be followed by a ‘crash’.
Starches - these are ‘complex carbs’ (eg. potatoes, pasta etc.). These are often called ‘good carbs’ as they are digested and absorbed into the body more slowly providing a more gradual and steady release of glucose (ie. sugar) into the blood. The goal is to avoid extreme highs and lows and to keep this energy supply as consistent as possible across the day.
The slower release of glucose results in less pronounced ‘spikes’ meaning the athlete is less likely to experience that ‘sugar crash’ feeling. Some complex carbs will be better than others, eg. a standard potato, for example, will release sugar into the blood quicker than a sweet potato making the sweet potato a far better option for your athlete. The ‘glycemic index’ provides a 1 to 100 score to demonstrate these differences.
Fibre - another ‘complex carb’ (eg. beans, vegetables, grains, etc.) that is essential for heart, gut and digestive health.
Protein is especially important for young athletes as it supports muscle growth to improve strength and power, aids muscle repair and recovery, and also provides energy. Good sources are lean meats, eggs, dairy, and plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, tofu, and nuts.
Protein should be eaten with each meal and snack.
Previously, athletes were recommended to consume it within 30-60 minutes of exercise to benefit muscle recovery and growth but researchers have now questioned this tight timing window. Until a conclusive view is provided, parents should continue to provide post-training and post-competition snacks containing protein as these provide valuable energy and will also help top up protein levels. Importantly, they will also address post-exercise hunger, avoiding the ‘hangry’ athlete!!
Fat has had a particularly bad press over the years but it turns out, much of what we’ve been told is simply wrong. Fat is essential for our health… our brain is made of it! We just need to consume the right types and avoid those that aren’t in our best interest.
We all need fats in our diet because:
They give us energy.
They enable the absorption of vitamins.
They enable optimal cell function.
They provide an essential layer to keep us warm.
There are three types of fat:
Saturated (found in red meat, dairy products, some oils, etc.). These can increase our “bad” cholesterol, and until now, have been thought to increase the risk of heart disease. But more recent research calls into doubt these categoric claims. For now, these should probably be consumed in moderation.
Unsaturated fats provide an extremely valuable contribution and are essential for good health. They are made up of two types:
•Monounsaturated - found in olive oil, avocado, nuts, etc.
•Polyunsaturated - found in walnuts, chia seeds, sunflower oil, fish, etc, etc. include Omega-3 fatty acids that are particularly beneficial for health.
Trans fats are processed vegetable oil and are found in some ‘fast food’ and ultra-processed foods. They have been linked to several health diseases, type 2 diabetes, and many other health issues. Banned in the US but still allowed in the UK!! These should be avoided as much as possible.
Dehydration is pretty much guaranteed to adversely affect your athlete’s performance but, more importantly, it will impact their overall health too. The body simply cannot function without adequate water and drinking enough is by far the simplest way to feel better and to improve health.
Water has several functions, all of them essential:
It transports nutrients around the body.
It enables the organs to function properly.
It controls the body’s temperature.
It provides lubrication to allow joints to move effectively.
General guidelines suggest consuming 6-8 cups a day but for athletes, these numbers are virtually meaningless. Factors such as the amount and type of exercise they do and the temperature in which it’s done will have a significant effect on how much they ideally need to consume. They should be encouraged to take regular sips throughout the entire day (ie. whilst at school) to ensure they are hydrated before starting a training session. During training, taking sips as and when should become a normal habit. After training, drinking to replace fluid lost during exercise will be essential to allow the body to recover and repair properly.
There are three take-home points here:
Ensure they always have access to drinking water,
Educate the athlete on the role hydration plays in their athletic performance/improvement.
Understanding that not drinking enough will mean reduced performance will ensure they take this basic health requirement seriously!
These nutrients, although small, are all necessary if the body is to function properly.
There are 13 vitamins that are described as ‘essential’, meaning the body cannot produce them and therefore relies on them becoming available through food.
Not getting enough results in vitamin deficiencies that can eventually lead to health issues. Your athlete’s diet should, therefore, be as varied as possible and include all of the main food groups, to ensure they receive what they need.
These are elements derived from foods that are also needed to enable the body to function properly. Some of the more common examples are sodium, calcium, potassium, iron, magnesium, and zinc. Consuming a well-balanced and varied diet should ensure that your athlete gets all that they need.
How You Can Help
Offer a variety of nutritious foods from each of the different food groups:
• fruit and vegetables.
• potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates.
• beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat, and other proteins.
• dairy and alternatives.
• oils and spreads.
Provide well-balanced nutrition by including carbs, proteins, and fats in each meal.
Provide as many different colours of fruit and vegetables as possible. This will ensure a large diversity of nutrients and ‘good’ gut bugs, essential for optimal health… Eat the rainbow!
Ensure your athlete remains hydrated. Drinking enough water is essential for everyone but even more so for athletes who will lose additional fluid through sweat. This is especially important during warm weather and during physical activity.
Limit ultra-processed foods. There’s growing evidence to suggest the consumption of ultra-processed foods can be detrimental to health. If a food is packaged and the ingredients contain things that aren’t found in your kitchen, the chances are it’s ultra-processed. Try to replace as many as possible with unprocessed alternatives ie. 'real food'.
Provide lots of healthy snacks. Making foods like fruits, veggies, yoghurt, and nuts easily available will mean your athlete is more likely to snack on these than the less healthy alternatives.
Allow them to eat as and when they’re hungry. A young athlete’s food needs will be different to those of a non-athlete of the same age… they use up far more energy and therefore need far more food. Facts!!
Although we’re emphasising here the importance of your athlete having a good healthy diet, it’s just as important to remember that food can also be a great source of happiness. If they’re eating healthy food most of the time, they’re getting the nutrients they need. If they then want to enjoy a chocolate bar as a treat then that’s absolutely fine.
Food can also be a way for them to enjoy social interactions. So, if they want to go to McDonald’s with their mates that is also fine… in fact these experiences can really help their social development. By making rules and banning ‘unhealthy’ foods, you’re denying them something very, very important.… enjoyment.
THE GOLDEN RULE IS:
Everything is okay in moderation, and nothing is off-limits.
Take Home Point
Although this subject can sound daunting, it really doesn’t need to be. As parents, we don’t need to know the definition of a ‘carb’ or the different types of fats, we simply need to provide our athletes with a well-balanced and varied diet that includes all of the different food groups. This is by far the best way to ensure they get the nutrients they need for good health and good performance.
Another really simple but very effective tip is to try and make meals as colourful as you possibly can. The more colours you include in the form of fruits and vegetables, nuts, and seeds, the more health-enhancing nutrients there will be. This last point is especially important in that this is also one of the best ways to help ensure their gut microbiome contains as many ‘good’ gut bacteria, now known to significantly improve health and the immune system.
Lastly, making sure your athlete understands that poor hydration will mean poor performance results and poor recovery, is an effective way of ensuring they take hydration seriously. Sipping (water ideally), little and often throughout the day will keep their body hydrated and ready to perform well.
*DISCLAIMER: This content is for guidance only. If your athlete needs more in-depth nutritional support, we recommend you seek help from an accredited health professional.
Our content is supported by the following evidence-based research:
Hannon, M.P., Close, G.L. and Morton, J.P., 2020. Energy and macronutrient considerations for young athletes. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 42(6), pp.109-119.
Kerksick, C.M., 2019. Requirements of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats for athletes. In Nutrition and enhanced sports performance (pp. 443-459). Academic Press.