Young Athletes & Nutrition

When I was growing up, good nutrition was not something that came naturally.  In fact, it didn't exist in my life.  I was an overtrained young athlete, who played semi-professional tennis, and had no clue how to fuel my frame.  It took years for me to nail my nutrition, and helping the young athletes and their families is a passion of mine, as it can be life changing.

Why is it important to start young?

This may seem like an obvious question, duh, everything is developing, growing, and changing.  Right?  But, I'd like to emphasize just how it really is important to set your kids and young athletes for success with the right fuel from the start.  

#1 Inflammation: it's not just about the Omega 3 and Fish Oil.  Limiting the amount of food coloring, processed foods, and sugar that is abundant in schools and pantries is vital to supporting the young athletes overall health.  Exercise, especially in high levels, can create naturally high levels of inflammation just from the breakdown of tissue and repair that comes along with it.  Decreasing inflammation naturally by focusing on foods that are free from chemicals, additives, and processed sugars and oils can help decrease unnecessary inflammation and optimize overall health!

#2 Energy & Focus:  if your child is having hard time focusing in school, complains about feeling tired in the morning or afternoon, or does not feel rested after getting ample amounts of sleep--consider addressing possible food sensitivities or nutrient deficiencies.  For female athletes, consider checking iron levels as well as ferritin levels (storage form of iron).  Just as adults sometimes need to do an elimination challenge for different foods, so do kids.  Common allergens to watch out for include: dairy, gluten, wheat, eggs, corn, soy, certain fruit, and sugar.  Because these foods are prevalent, educating kids about food options, planning & prepping snacks or meals, and paying attention to day to day mental and physical performance becomes key.

#3 Digestive Health & Immunity: there is a direct link between gut health, immunity, and overall health. Food sensitivities, gut bacteria imbalance, antibiotic treatments (thinks about ear infections and how many antibiotic treatments sometimes kids get!), and high processed food diet can impact gut health and in turn the immune system can malfunction.  If the common cold or flu is keeping your child from performing well in school or sports, consider doing a gut health audit.  This includes considering eliminating possible food allergens, introducing probiotics, adding an enzyme for a short period to help improve digestion and absorption of foods. 

#4 Hormones & Emotional Health:  middle school and high school can be challenging for so many reasons.  To top it off, kids are experiencing a fluctuation in hormones which can keep most parents on their toes, and the kids, well, frustrated.  Changing nutrition by focusing on whole foods and simply decreasing the amount of processed and junk food that makes it's way to the kids will support a healthy hormone environment, stabilize mood, help decrease and daily ups and downs, and can give a boost of confidence and well-being.  

Active kids and young athletes who compete need to pay closer attention to nutrition as it can make a big difference in school, sports, and personal life.  My first experience with a nutritionist was when I was fifteen years old.  I had multiple practices during the day and my mom struggled to figure out what I needed.  She fed me salads and protein when I was at home, which was good, but I rarely felt full and I didn't know what to eat when I was away from home.  Several meetings with a nutritionist and my own naturopathic doctor at that time, and it changed my life.  

Here are some tips that your kids and family can use to get started:

  • Eliminate food allergens that can be causing inflammation, fatigue, brain fog, and mood swings.
  • Focus on incorporating good sources of protein and fat with each meal.  Smoothies in the mornings are a great way to start the day! You can even add a scoop of your favorite protein to your kids oatmeal.  
  • Nuts, seeds, and avocados are great sources of fat.  Ghee (clarified butter) and coconut oil are other great sources.
  • Focus on incorporating a serving of vegetables with lunch and dinner or even as a snack.  I hear it all the time that "my child does not like to eat vegetables," and I get it.  But, when I ask the kids what kind of vegetables they like and how they like them, there is usually a good answer and something you can work with.   
  • The above guidelines are not athlete specific, so if your child is very active, focusing on optimizing the timing and quality of snacks is essential. Forty five minutes to sixty minutes before an activity, make sure they are having a light snack such as a healthy protein bar, a piece of fruit and a handful of nuts, avocado and rice cracker, or a couple bites of a non-dairy yogurt.  Similarly within thirty minutes after the activity, unless they are going straight to a meal.  

One of the reasons I am emphasizing the pre and post activity fuel for kids is because I am finding that many kids are going hungry into an activity or are hungry after an activity.  I am also seeing more stomach aches in my practice, and this is another reason I am bringing attention to the quality of snacks: simply shifting the focus to whole foods rather than packaged sugary snacks and drinks can make a big difference!

I've worked with many young athletes and professional athletes to see big results with simple changes to nutrition, timing, and quality of meals.  Like with anything, it just takes some planning and prepping, but it doesn't have to be perfect every time.

If you have any questions on the topic or want to learn more about how you can improve your health and start getting the results your want drop me a note at info@proactivehealthnd.com.  You can also contact our clinic here.

In Health,

Dr. Elena

Dr. Elena Zinkov