May 8, 2019
On the Move: Meeting nutrition needs of teenage athletes
By Emily Edison, contributing writer

High • school • athlete | noun | \ˈhī \ˈskül \ˈath-lēt\

Pertaining to the hard-to-get-out-of-bed, fast food-eating teenagers who spend their days learning calculus and American history and then tear up fields and courts after the final bell rings. These growing and developing creatures require nutrition above and beyond the offerings of most high school cafeterias, drive-through windows, or convenience store snack aisles, yet few are meeting their unique dietary needs.

high school basketballHigh school athletes face similar fueling challenges as their collegiate counterparts, such as limited time, minimal motivation for meal prep, and frequent travel. However, they have a few more hurdles to consider. For instance, many inhabit bodies that are rapidly changing, and the population as a whole is generally less likely to take responsibility for food choices.

In addition, as high school athletes grow and change, they often struggle with their body image, self-esteem and self-acceptance. To address these concerns, some look to lose fat, while others try to gain muscle. Attempting to meet either of these goals without a corresponding nutrition plan can be detrimental to performance and health.

The available research on nutrition for high school athletes supports a meal plan that incorporates eating multiple times a day and balancing macronutrients to maintain performance. This often requires fueling and hydrating in a creative manner.

For the past 10 years, the Washington Interscholastic Nutrition Forum (WIN- Forum), a science-based sports nutrition resource geared toward high school athletes, coaches, athletic support staff, and parents, has supported high school athletes in creating fueling game plans to help them succeed in sport. In my experience, science-based education and a bit of planning up front can go a long way in meeting the fueling challenges for high school athletes.

Basic needs

When it comes to macronutrients like carbohydrates, protein, and fat, it’s important that high school athletes are getting adequate intake. To start, they should get more than half of their daily calories from high-quality carbohydrates, such as grains, fruits, and dairy.

Unfortunately, this does not always happen because many high school athletes misunderstand carbohydrates. They are quick to adopt fad diets that restrict carbohydrates or cut out whole food groups, such as dairy or grains. Of course, athletes with medically diagnosed conditions, for example, Celiac disease, should follow their prescribed diet. But for all athletes, carbohydrates play a valuable role in their growth and performance.

Protein is also a crucial part of a high school athlete’s diet to maximize muscle growth and repair. Generally, teenage athletes require between .7 and .9 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight each day. Because the body can only utilize approximately 25 grams of protein per feeding interval, athletes should focus on consuming small, high-quality doses throughout the day. Dairy, eggs, meat, chicken, fish, tofu, edamame, and soy milk are all high-quality sources.

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Additionally, new research suggests that a pre-bed snack consisting of 20 to 25 grams of high-quality protein can help the body assimilate muscle tissue during sleep. Acquiring muscle while they sleep? This should be an easy sell to high school athletes.

It can be hard for teenagers to figure out how to consume protein throughout the day, so I find it helpful to provide them with ideas and examples. Here’s a sample eating plan I drew up for Sara, a 16-year-old, 5-foot-11-inch, 150-pound basketball player. She needed 120 grams of protein per day to maintain stamina and gain muscle during her offseason training.

  • Breakfast: Two-egg scramble on two pieces of toast with avocado and tomato and eight ounces of milk = 24 grams of protein.
  • Snack: Six ounces of Greek yogurt and fruit = 12 grams.
  • Lunch: Three ounces of tuna on two slices of bread, granola bar, carrots and hummus, and fruit = 24 grams.
  • Pre-practice snack: Half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a fruit leather = 7 grams.
  • Post-practice snack: 12 ounces of chocolate milk = 12 grams.
  • Dinner: Three-ounce portion of grilled pork tenderloin, baked sweet potato, steamed broccoli, and fruit salad with yogurt = 25 grams.
  • Pre-bed snack: Cottage cheese and fruit = 15 grams.

Finally, high school athletes need fat — the heart-healthy kind. Be sure to educate them on the importance of consuming fats from fish, nuts, vegetable oils (e.g., olive and canola) and avocados. These support energy, muscle growth, immune function and recovery.

Tailored to teens

In my years of working with high school athletes, I’ve learned to conquer the three main roadblocks of getting them to fuel properly. The first is convincing them to eat a quality breakfast.

I’ve yet to meet a teenager who willingly wakes up earlier than they absolutely have to, so it can be difficult to convince high school athletes that consuming a morning meal is more important than a few extra minutes of sleep. It helps to explain that those who skip breakfast won’t have enough gas in the tank for a focused afternoon practice. This missing fuel can lead to muscle loss — not to mention the potential loss of a starting spot on a team.

Two other ways I’ve had success getting athlete buy-in are through visual aids and by organizing team breakfasts. I use Pinterest to create visual boards that I share with athletes, so they can see how easy it is to make a microwave egg sandwich or toaster waffle “Big Mac” (layer toaster waffles with peanut butter and banana). For team breakfasts, I suggest making oatmeal in a large slow cooker and assigning players to bring their favorite toppings, such as nuts, granola, milk, and fruit.

Just because breakfast is the most important meal of the day, doesn’t mean it has to be the most complicated. There are tons of quick, high- carbohydrate, moderate-protein options that will keep athletes energized and their muscle tissue intact. Some I recommend are a bagel with eggs, banana, and milk; yogurt, oatmeal, and an orange; and whole grain waffles with peanut butter and strawberries.

   » ALSO SEE: Nutrition and football: What you need to know

You’ll notice that none of my go-to options include a bowl of cereal. This common breakfast item for high schoolers is often loaded with sugar and rarely provides long-lasting energy. Advise athletes to ditch their corn flakes and honey-nut O’s for some- thing more substantial. If they must have cereal in the mornings, remind them that it should serve as an appetizer to a heartier breakfast.

The second challenge is getting high school athletes to snack throughout the day. Approximately 25% to 30% of their total calories should come prior to lunch. For the athlete who needs 3,000 calories per day, this means 750 to 1,000 calories should come in the form of breakfast and a morning snack.

Snacks for the rest of the day should contain carbohydrates for energy and protein for repairing muscles and keeping athletes satisfied. Since time between classes is short and many schools limit eating and drinking, good snack options should be nonperishable and easy to store in lockers or book bags. (See “Snack Time” below.)

One of my clients, Luke, a freshman cross country runner, recently learned the benefits of all-day fueling. When we started working together, Luke complained of fatigue and felt his performance was lacking. His eating habits reflected, well, a typical high schooler’s. His breakfast consisted of one bowl of cereal (“if there was time”). Lunch was finely crafted cafeteria pizza or chicken nuggets, chips, fruit snacks, and a carbonated drink, and he capped off the day with a home-cooked dinner after practice.

Together, Luke and I developed a performance nutrition game plan that better suited his dietary needs. Here’s what it looked like:

  • Breakfast: Waffles with peanut butter and bananas, yogurt, and coffee
  • Snack: Trail mix
  • Lunch: Sandwich, veggies, fruit, goldfish crackers, and a granola bar
  • Pre-practice snack: Dried fruit and peanut butter pretzels
  • Post-practice snack: Chocolate milk and an energy bar
  • Dinner: Grilled fish, veggies, salad, bread, and milk
  • Pre-bed snack: Peanut butter and jelly sandwich with fruit.

After a short time practicing his new meal plan, Luke reported significant improvements in his performance. He broke two freshman school records, made first team all-freshman in his conference, competed in the state championship meet, and is now ranked nationally.

Finally, the third challenge of working with teenage athletes is accepting that they won’t always make healthy choices. Remember, good nutrition doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Creating rules like “no sweets” or “no fries” sets high school athletes up for failure and increases the likelihood of binge eating and secretive eating behavior.

Instead, try to balance high-performance fueling with realistic expectations. I recommend high school athletes follow the 80-20 rule. If they focus on high-performance foods 80% of the time, 20% is left for eating “cheat” foods.

I also tell athletes to use some of their favorite treats to fuel performance. For example, if an athlete loves his mom’s chocolate chip cookies, I suggest including them as a pre- practice snack with milk. This way, his body can use the carbohydrates and protein for energy and muscle growth, and he feels guilt-free about his choice.

Losing & gaining

High school athletes do a lot of looking in the mirror, and they aren’t always happy with what they see. Like most teenagers, high school athletes can struggle with self-esteem, and some may want to make their bodies look a certain way through fat loss or muscle gain. It’s important that they pursue either option in a healthy manner.

Athletes’ weight and body composition desires are influenced by coaches, athletic trainers, media, teammates, parents, and their own athletic and aesthetic goals. These influences and pressures can tempt young athletes to restrict calories and eliminate food groups in order to lose weight.

I recently worked with a high school swimmer, Ciera, who wanted to lose weight after she heard her coach say that dropping a “few pounds” can help athletes swim faster. She quickly put his blanket statement of, “Stop eating sweets to lose weight,” into action.

Ciera removed all things with sugar in them from her diet, including her pre-practice snacks, which cut about 800 calories from her daily intake. The frequent praise she received on her appearance once she started losing weight encouraged her to continue with her calorie restriction. She created a new rule, “No White at Night,” and cut out all carbohydrates that were white, such as bread, pasta, and rice.

For an athlete with extremely high carbohydrate needs like Ciera, restricting these foods can lead to low energy availability, amenorrhea, fear of eating with friends and teammates, and the potential for developing an eating disorder. With a starting body composition of 19% body fat (already low for a teen swimmer), Ciera did not need to lose a few pounds, and the calorie restriction was too great for her to maintain muscle and bone mass, as well as energy.

While I worked alongside Ciera’s physician and therapist to adjust her eating habits, she took a break from training and competition. After six months, she was able to face her fears around eating, get back to a healthy, strong weight, and gradually return to the pool. Ciera also regained her menstrual cycle and is now swimming faster than ever.

To prevent a frustrating and potentially damaging battle against the scale, encourage athletes to ask themselves three important questions before they start a weight-loss plan:

→ Why do I want to lose weight? There are many reasons athletes think they need to lose weight, and improving their overall health is not typically one of them. Some think it will increase their athletic performance, but many are fueled by a desire to look “better.” As Ciera’s case shows, calorie restriction for the wrong reason can be dangerous.

→ Do I need to lose weight? Athletes frequently hear losing weight improves sports performance, but that is not al- ways the case. In many circumstances, cutting calories can lead to nutrient deficiencies, muscle loss, and performance declines if energy needs are not met.

Communicating best practices and choices for an athlete’s health and performance should be a “team” effort that includes coaches, athletic trainers, parents, nutritionists, and family physicians. This will help ensure athletes reach their goals without compromising well-being.

→ Is this the right time to lose weight? Optimal timing for weight loss is in the offseason to ensure it has minimal effects on performance. In addition, periods of high stress (e.g., finals weeks, family conflicts) and times of growth (puberty) can make weight loss more difficult to attain.

If athletes want to lose weight for the healthy reasons and the timing is right, recommend they fuel every three to four hours, as research on nutrient timing says eating smaller meals more frequently minimizes excessive caloric over-feeding (fat storage) and excessive caloric deficit (muscle loss). Learning to be self-aware of hunger and satiety can help athletes stick to this fueling schedule. Remind them to listen to their bodies for true hunger cues, such as a growling stomach, rather than eating because they are bored, lonely, or sad. Some may benefit from keeping a hunger and full- ness chart (rating hunger and fullness on a scale of one to 10 throughout the day) or setting an alarm on their watches or phones to eat every few hours.

High school athletes looking to gain weight may think their road has to be paved with muscle-building supplements. Contrary to popular belief, simply consuming extra protein in the form of powders and pills and hitting the gym on occasion is not enough to gain muscle. To see results, high-quality protein must be consumed in multiple small portions (20 to 25 grams) throughout the day and combined with a well-planned strength program.

I advise a three-step “Ready, Set, Go” approach when working with athletes who are looking to increase muscle mass:

  • Ready: Have athletes start a strength-based, sport-specific lifting program designed to maximize muscle gain. Then, create an eating plan to support growth that includes a meal-snack-meal-snack pattern and caloric distribution spread around practices and games.
  • Set: Be realistic when helping athletes set goals for muscle gain. A good target is to add 400 to 500 calories per day, which will build half a pound to a pound of muscle per week when following their strength program.
  • Go: Provide consistent support for athletes to fuel and train. Remind them to fuel during training by consuming extra energy sources.

It is vital to remind high school athletes about the importance of recovery and repetition in a muscle-gaining program. Encourage a recovery snack after each training session that includes carbohydrate and protein. Stress that staying consistent with eating and training habits will ultimately help them reach their goals.

High school is the perfect time and place to engage athletes in sports nutrition. Building a solid nutrition game plan in their teens will help them continue to enhance performance as they move along in sport.


Since 2005, Emily Edison, MS, RD, CSSD, is the owner and founder of Momentum Nutrition in Seattle and spent seven years as the consulting Sports Dietitian for the University of Washington athletic department.
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