Jan 29, 2015
Pizza Party!

High school athletes are a busy, energetic bunch. Getting them to focus on good nutrition takes just the right approach.

By Leslie Bonci

Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, LDN, is Director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and serves as a consultant to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pitt athletics, and several area high schools.

When your high school athletes go through the cafeteria line or stop at their favorite fast food joint, are they thinking about how well their food choices are going to fuel their bodies? If they’re like the high school athletes who recently responded to a survey I helped to develop, the answer may disappoint you.

In 2005, the Joint Committee on Sports Medicine (with members from the NATA, NCAA, American College of Sports Medicine, and the ADA) developed a survey to assess the eating habits and attitudes of high school athletes. In a pilot study last summer and fall, the survey was given to about 500 high school athletes in three states.

The results show plenty of room for improvement. While 63 percent of the respondents said they “sometimes” choose foods to improve energy levels or performance, only 22 percent said they do so “often.” And about one in three said they didn’t know whether the foods they ate affected their practices or games.

As an athletic trainer or strength coach, you know that few things do affect an athlete’s health and performance as much as nutrition. But when you’re talking to a population of young, busy teenagers who take their health and energy for granted, how can you get that message across?

In my work with high school athletes, I focus on communicating simple messages about the most important aspects of performance nutrition. I follow up by getting coaches, parents, and school personnel on board in a team effort to help athletes eat better.


The high school years are a critical time for athletes to pay attention to what they eat. Along with placing demands on their bodies for their sports, teenagers are still growing, so their energy needs are higher than those of adults. And they’re in the process of developing eating habits that they’ll carry with them through their college years and beyond.

Most high school athletes do not shop or cook for themselves, so their meal choices at home are influenced by whoever makes the grocery list and does the cooking. The teenage years also are filled with physical changes which can exacerbate body image issues and influence food choices.

With all of these challenges, how do you teach high school athletes the importance of sports nutrition? I start by focusing on a few simple aspects: when to eat, what to eat, and how much to eat for optimal performance.

Although we know that fuel timing in relation to exercise is critical, a lot of high school athletes eat lunch at 10:30 a.m. and if practice is not until 3 p.m., they are hungry and inadequately fueled to get through practice without sacrificing strength, speed, and stamina. Therefore, it’s key to remind athletes that they need to eat throughout the day, come to practice fully fueled, and replenish depleted fuel stores afterward.

To fuel up before a game or practice, athletes should eat or drink something with carbohydrate one hour before practice—a sports drink, a granola bar, two handfuls of trail mix, or a handful of pretzels and a small banana. Also, remind athletes that eating something within 15 minutes after a practice or game will hasten recovery.

Next, to help athletes ensure they are eating enough calories to fuel their exercise, I encourage them to focus on their bodies’ hunger and fullness cues. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “absolutely starving” and 10 being “absolutely stuffed,” I recommend leaving the table at a 5—they should be satisfied, but should also feel they could eat a little more. I also encourage them to pay attention to their energy levels throughout the day to be sure they are eating enough overall calories.


Formal team meetings offer a chance to provide nutrition education to many athletes at once. I suggest you try to give nutrition presentations to athletes who are not in season so they can prepare for the upcoming season. In the fall, talk to winter and spring athletes, and in the spring, talk to fall athletes.

If you only have one to two times a year to get your athletes together to talk fuel:

  • Provide an eating checklist with before and after practice options. Make sure it contains tips on what, when, and how much to eat.
  • Discuss hydration. Remind athletes that it takes 60 minutes for one liter (20 oz.) of fluid to leave the gut, so ask them to drink something during the last period of the day. If necessary, offer to talk with teachers about allowing water bottles in class.
  • Talk about supplements. First and foremost, emphasize that supplements are not a replacement for nutritious food. Also remind athletes that since many dietary supplements undergo no FDA approval, there is no way to be sure what they contain or what they really will do—unlike healthy food and proper hydration, which we know will always boost performance.
  • Caution athletes against allowing peer pressure to dictate their food choices. A young female athlete may severely restrict her intake at lunch because her friends don’t eat much, even though they might not have a three-hour practice after school. A male athlete who sees his peers gaining muscle faster than he is may start looking for shakes and supplements to bulk him up. These teens need to be reminded that healthy choices are not always made by following the crowd.

One good idea is to ask an attention-grabbing presenter to address nutrition at this meeting. In our survey, athletes said a presentation by a famous athlete would be more effective than any other way of getting information to them, and they said a presentation by a sports physician would also be good. Try asking a local collegiate athlete or even a successful local recreational athlete to address your teams.

Between formal nutrition presentations, anytime you have contact with athletes can serve as a quick opportunity to do some nutrition education. While you’re taping an athlete or handing out ice, ask them:

  • When was the last time you ate today?
  • When was the last time you had something to drink?
  • How soon do you usually eat after practice?
  • What do you have in your bag to eat after practice?

Consider using other media to get the message across. Asked what would be the most effective medium for communicating nutrition information to their age group, many athletes in our survey chose the Internet. If your high school has a Web site, consider adding a sports nutrition page where you post tip sheets, checklists, and links to other sports nutrition sites.


Athletes aren’t the only ones you need to reach, however. High school athletes’ eating habits are heavily influenced by their families, coaches, and peers. In fact, when the athletes in our survey were asked where they turned for advice about supplements, coaches were far and away the most popular response at 21.6 percent—nearly twice the percentage who said they asked an athletic trainer, strength coach, doctor, or dietitian.

Therefore, it’s important to include coaches in the educational process. Remind them that the goal is to have optimally fueled athletes at practices, not just games. Encourage them to have athletes come to practice with a water bottle and a post-practice snack. Offer your assistance to coaches who have overweight or underweight athletes on their teams. Have coaches post hydration and nutrition information in their offices, the bathrooms, locker rooms, and the gym.

Parents also need to buy into helping their high schooler eat for performance. If an athlete’s parents are on a low-carb diet and dinner is chicken and salad, they need to know that is not going to provide adequate fuel for a tired, hungry athlete coming home after practice.

Any sport nutrition presentations for student athletes should also be open to parents, who should be strongly encouraged to attend. You may want to talk with your athletic director to see if it can become a mandatory meeting for parents. An ideal time may be at the yearly team meeting when students and parents meet with coaches. You can also use this forum to remind the booster club to consider healthy nutrition when it chooses snack items for practices and suggest pre- and post-games meal ideas.

Parents of athletes with medical or weight issues might need more one-on-one help and expertise than you can provide. For these parents, it’s important to keep a contact list of local dietitians, therapists, and physicians who specialize in eating and weight issues.

Since many high school athletes eat lunch and even breakfast at school, you also need to bring the food service staff on board. How many times have your athletes told you they didn’t eat lunch because they didn’t like the cafeteria’s offerings? Consider arranging an after-school meeting with student-athlete representatives, yourself, and someone from food service.

Ask the food service staff to collaborate in your efforts to educate athletes. Together you could develop informational “table tents” to put on cafeteria tables. Another great tactic is color coding cafeteria food choices so athletes can easily find the high-carb, low-fat items best for performance.

The collaborative approach is especially important with regard to hydration. It takes a team to properly hydrate an athlete. A letter from the athletic director, coach, training staff, and school nurse can be drafted to persuade late-day teachers to allow student-athletes to hydrate during class. This is much less disruptive than being excused to go to the water fountain. Include some information about the dangers of dehydration to both physical and mental performance. Well-hydrated students perform better in the classroom and on the field.

Also consider making the school nurse, health teachers, or a parent who is a dietitian part of your team. Ask teachers if they would allow student-athletes to have something to eat and drink during the class period before practice. Encourage them to hang posters in the office or classroom with reminders on the importance of fueling and hydrating for sport. See if the dietitian will write an article for your athletes, or help you develop a list of sport-friendly pre-game meals and pre- and post-practice snacks.

Last but not least, student-athletes who have gotten the message and understand the importance of proper nutrition can be your best allies. Encourage such athletes to talk about nutrition with their teammates, stressing the message that eating well is the responsibility of each athlete for the success of the team.


The following are results from a pilot study of 500 high school athletes conducted by the Joint Commission of Sports Medicine.

    Do foods affect your practice or play?

    Very much 22.6%

    Somewhat 41.9%

    Not at all 4.7%

    Don’t know 30.7%

    Do you choose foods to improve energy level or performance?

    Often 22.4%

    Sometimes 63.6%

    Not at all 13.8%

    Don’t know 0.19%,br>

    What influences your food choices for sport?

    Increase muscle mass 21.8%

    Decrease weight 11.5%

    Decrease body fat 13.6%

    Improve performance 28.6%

    Prevent injury 16.0%

    All of the above: 7.6%

    Other: 0.8%

    Who do you turn to for information on supplements?

    Another athlete 13%

    Coach 21.6%

    Strength coach 4.9%

    Athletic trainer 6.7%

    School nurse 1.9%

    Family doctor 4.7%

    Dietitian 7.6%

    Teacher 1.6%

    Parent 12.7%

    Teammate/friend 11.5%

    Personal trainer 3%

    Nutrition store employee 3.6%

    Internet 5.8%

    Don’t know 0.35%

    Don’t use supplements: 0.35%

    What is the most effective way to deliver supplement and nutrition information?

    Poster 6.7%

    CD/DVD 9.4%

    Video 7.9%

    Computer/video game 5.3%

    Pamphlet 7.5%

    Presentation by famous athlete 20.8%

    Presentation by sports MD 15.5%

    Presentation by sports dietitian 9.9%

    Web site: 15.7%

    Other 1.1%


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