Eat to Compete in High School

Athlete Nutrition


Christopher D. Jensen, PhD, MPH, RD

Heading off to high school is a big step. You’re no longer the big fish at middle school. The classes in high school are tougher, and the sports are definitely more challenging. You no doubt played recreational sports growing up, but that was one or maybe two practices a week and a game on the weekends. The physical commitment to high school sports is in another league altogether. There may be daily practices – sometimes in the morning and afternoons, separate weight-training workouts, and one or even two competitions in a week depending upon the sport.

Gone are the days of orange slices at half-time and a glazed doughnut as the post-game snack. Many teenage athletes get hit with this stark reality the first week of the preseason. You drag yourself home after 6 or 7 periods of class and an exhausting practice, and you can barely find the energy to make it through dinner, let alone tackle a night of homework. Sound familiar?

As a teenage athlete, you face the challenge of keeping pace with the nutritional demands of your sport, while also consuming the nutrients required to fully grow and develop. In this article, you’ll learn what you need nutritionally to be healthy and to support the growth spurt that is transforming your body. You’ll also gain expertise on the key principles of sports nutrition and how to apply them so that you can be at your best when training and competing.

You’re not just competing, you’re growing

During your teen years, you’re growing at an incredible rate. Girls sprout an average of 10 inches (25 cm) and gain 53 lbs (24 kg) during the growth spurt. Boys tack on an average of 11 inches ((28 cm) and pack 70 lbs (32 kg) onto their frames.

The exact timing of when you’ll grow and what height you have the potential to reach has lots to do with your genetics – something you don’t have any control over. But you can only achieve your full growth potential if you consume adequate amounts of the many different nutrients your body needs to develop and stay healthy – and that’s something you do control!

Which foods to eat and why

To reach your full growth potential and to compete successfully in high school athletics, you need a host of essential nutrients and dietary factors. Included on the list are adequate calories, carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber, water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins, minerals, and trace minerals.

With a nutrient list this long, it stands to reason that you’re not going to get the full gamut of what you need from a few foods or even by popping dietary supplements. Yes, it sounds like a cliché, but the recommendation to eat a wide variety of foods has a purpose. It’s that wide variety that’s going to ensure that you get all the nutritional factors you need to develop your full potential.

The following foods are the foundation of healthy eating, and healthy eating is what all athletes need to do in order to perform at their best:

Fruits, vegetables, and grains are your dietary staples. They should make up three-fourths of every meal. These foods provide carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are your primary fuel source when you’re working hard at practice, and you only have a very limited supply of these carbohydrate fuel reserves in your body. That means you need to replace on a daily basis what you use up during exercise. If you don’t, you’ll be dragging at every practice and workout, and failing to deliver during competitions. These foods are also storehouses for essential vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber. Consume at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day:

  • Fruits include apples, bananas, oranges, tangerines, berries, melons, and so on. Whole fruits are preferred over fruit juice
  • Vegetables include carrots, celery, lettuce, salads, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, green beans, peas, corn, and so on
  • When it comes to grains, choose them whole when you can: whole-grain and multi-grain breads and cereals, oatmeal, and brown rice. A whole grain, ready-to-eat breakfast cereal is a great start to the day or as a high-carbohydrate snack anytime

Grab 2 or 3 pieces of fruit and a bag of whole grain crackers on your way out the door in the morning, and make these your snacks. And a word to the wise: Choose fresh fruit and vegetables over more processed varieties for the most health benefits.

Protein foods should make up the other fourth of your meals. Healthy protein foods are lean meats, chicken, turkey, fish, nuts, beans, and tofu. Protein foods provide amino acids, which are the building blocks your body uses to make all kinds of different proteins, including muscle tissue. Protein foods like meat are also good sources of iron, which is an important mineral you need to maintain your energy level. Contrary to popular opinion, most athletes get plenty of protein, and eating more than you need won’t make you any stronger or bigger. But timing your protein intake in relation to your practices and workouts is something to pay attention to, and we’ll cover that more a bit later. A good, practical way to get healthy protein sources is to bring a couple of sandwiches to school to eat during breaks and at lunchtime. Peanut butter and jam, chicken, tuna, and meat sandwiches all fit the bill. A bag of nuts with dried fruit also makes for a munchable snack, and the fats in nuts are particularly healthful.

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Kind Regards

Hennie Kriek Email Signature


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