Carbohydrate and Protein Needs for Young Athletes Desiring to Make the Jump from Good to Great!

Bowls filled with granola and berries

There’s No “One-Size-Fits-All” Nutrition Approach

An athlete’s energy and nutrient needs depend individually on his or her age, body composition, goals, and training volume, and depends globally on the demands and intensity of the sport. Put simply, the greater the intensity, duration and frequency of the activity combined with the athlete’s weight or body composition, the higher the demand of protein, carbohydrate and calorie intake.

If you’re a coach, parent or athlete reading this, don’t become overwhelmed. This article intends to introduce to you some general guidelines on optimizing energy needs (i.e. calories, protein, and carbohydrates) to sufficiently support overall health and advance athletic performance.

First rule of thumb, ALL adolescent athletes should consume breakfast, lunch and dinner with 2-3 snacks in between meals to fully optimize energy levels. You must build a plate that includes a source of lean protein, a fruit, a vegetable, a healthy fat and a serving of dairy if you wish to get real and progress with your nutrition. A visual of the plate and practical nutrition strategies can be found in my previous blog here.

Fuel Up to Avoid Stalling Out

Youth athletes have significantly higher nutritional needs than their less-active classmates because athletes need more calories to support performance demands, normal growth, general development and maturation. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, female teen athletes need roughly 2,200-3,000 calories and male teen athletes need roughly 3,000-4,000 calories per day (depending upon the individual and sport). Additionally, adolescent athletes training in multiple sports may need upwards of 5,000 calories per day to maintain weight and support growth needs. It’s paramount to encourage adequate calorie consumption during times of heavy training. For perspective, low-energy availability in female adolescent athletes can lead to short stature, increased injury, delayed puberty, poor bone health, metabolic and cardiovascular issues, menstrual irregularities, disordered eating behaviors – this according to a review published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism published by Desbrow et al., 2019.

Relative Energy Deficiency Syndrome (RED-S) is a more comprehensive label that builds on the condition of low-energy availability, also known as “female athlete triad,” to describe an energy deficiency gap that results when energy intake is insufficient to support daily activities, living, growth and function. RED-S affects primarily females, but also young males.

Premium Fuel for the Young Athlete – Carbohydrates!

Carbohydrates are an athlete’s most important source of energy for optimal athletic performance. Several studies carried out during the last 50-60 years have consistently highlighted carbohydrates as the primary macronutrient to sustain and enhance physical performance. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has established that 45-65 percent of calories in one’s diet should come from carbohydrates or between 3 and 8 grams per kilogram of body mass, depending upon the exercise intensity. For example, a 14-year-old female athlete should consume 2,000-2,400 Granola and yogurt with fruit, juice, and eggscalories per day, with 225 – 270 g (45% of total calories) to 325 – 390 g (65% of total calories) from carbohydrates. Keep in mind the dietary reference intake (DRI) remains at 100 g per day and recommended daily allowance (RDA) at 130 g day for all age and sex categories (children ≥ 1 year), both measures not related to physical activity. High-quality carbohydrates for athletes to consume include, but are not limited to, 1. whole grains like pasta, rice, tortillas, bread, oatmeal, low-fat dairy, and energy bars, 2. fruits like berries & bananas, and apples, 3. starchy vegetables like squash, potatoes and eggplant. To experience a boost in energy, consider adding items from this longer list of quality carbohydrate-rich foods to achieve enhanced athletic performance.

Performance tip: Make half your plate carbohydrates if you’re an endurance athlete, especially on heavy training days. The average athlete should be eating around 360-500 grams of carbohydrates per day. Failing to consume enough carbohydrates will cause a decline in performance, cognition, focus, and athletic performance. Time-to-fatigue and injury risk will also increase without enough dietary carbohydrates. To keep it simple, carbohydrates are not “optional”; they are essential. You can take it from an RDN whom stands for science or examine the science for yourself by checking out Nutritional Considerations for Performance in Young Athletes published in the Journal of Sports Medicine.

Power Up with Protein!

Protein is critical for building, maintaining and repairing many cellular structures, like skeletal tissues. Consuming enough protein supports synthesis of hormones, neurotransmitters, energy production, gene activity and transportation of biological molecules. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has established that 15 to 20 percent of total calories, or about 70-160 grams should derive from high-quality protein sources.

To breakdown the science, consuming adequate protein is critical for proper growth, development and normal physiological function during adolescence leading into adulthood. Distinctive demands during adolescence, especially those that engage in high-intensity sport, call for a greater daily protein intake than that of adults. Currently the RDA for protein is 0.95 g/kg/day for children ages 4-13 years and 0.8 g/kg/day for adolescents between the ages of 14-18. Those that engage in regular training and endurance sports like swimming, rowing, distance running, and soccer may need 1.2-1.4 g/kg/day while power sports like weightlifting, gymnastics, football, wrestling shall require 1.0 – 1.5 g/kg/day .

High-quality protein sources include beef, poultry, bison, pea protein, pork, tuna, turkey, seafood, fish, and dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, whey, cheese and cottage cheese. To find out how much protein some of your favorite sources provide, check out this list from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Keep in mind that not all proteins are created equal. To deter you from going down the rabbit hole of plant proteins vs. animal proteins, I will simply link an article for you to review here. It’s important to just remember that foods rich in leucine, a branched chain amino acid found in animal proteins, will have the greatest positive affect on driving muscle protein synthesis. We could get really complex on this topic but it’s enough to simply emphasize the importance of consumption of high-quality proteins that are listed above due to their rich leucine content, especially since we are addressing protein intake for adolescent athletes. Most young athletes barely consume enough calories and protein as it is. To keep it simple, make sure your adolescent athlete consumes ¼ of their plate or a 4 oz. serving of a high-quality protein three-five times per day. As I always say, success starts with the basics and carrying them out on a consistent basis.

Failure by your adolescent athlete to consume adequate protein intake will cause declines in energy, weight, muscle growth, and strength, while increasing the likelihood of onset fatigue. Does this mean your adolescent athlete should be slamming protein shakes? Of course not, but they should be consistently consuming whole foods at regular mealtimes. Consuming good old fashioned chocolate milk on-the-go can even be a great way to increase calories while meeting additional protein intake demands. This is especially a great addition to refuel and re-hydrate post-practice or game! Make no mistake, a protein shake or chocolate milk will not make up for missed nutrients from consuming regular meals. Furthermore, supplements like protein powders are not regulated by the FDA and so it is important to select a protein powder that has been third-party tested with a NSF stamp of approval, which deems it certified for sport. This is paramount to ensure there are no banned substances on the label, that the product is manufactured in a facility that follows acceptable manufacturing standards, and that the contents of the supplement match what is printed on the label, ultimately being safe for consumption. To search supplements that are third-party tested and free of any banned substances, check out Informed-Sport.

Stirring it Altogether:

Knowing your carbohydrate and protein intake recommendations is great, but I encourage using the plate as a method of hitting your intake requirements. If you consume a balanced plate with all the components 3-5 times per day with high-quality snacks in between, you’re likely going to meet the energy demands of your sport. Again, it’s important to remember that carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy.

Keeping with the basics such as eating breakfast, lunch and dinner with small snacks in between meals will help improve your health and sport performance. Don’t skip meals and make sure your plate is full of colorful fruits and vegetables. Always choose water or milk over sugary beverage to support hydration and better overall health. It’s time we get back to the basics, which I discuss in detail in the last article I published, available for reference here. As always, nutrition is a secret weapon that can help you perform optimally in the classroom and in sport.

Your sports nutritionist,

Wendi Irlbeck, MS, RDN

Practical Nutrition Strategies for Youth Athletes

Most parents and families understand how critical a nutrient-rich, balanced diet is for optimal health and athletic performance. If you’re raising an adolescent or teen athlete performing at a high-level, you must focus greater attention to their fueling needs to ward off fatigue, prevent nutrient deficiencies, and decrease risk of injury.

Support your youth athlete using these strategies:

There is no “special diet plan” to assist in achieving optimal athletic performance. Consumption of the fundamentals (three high-quality balanced meals with 2-3 snacks between) on a consistent basis leads to better sports performance, games won, strength increases, and fewer injuries. A great resource to build a plate for optimal performance can be viewed here .

The greater intensity the sport, duration and training volume, the greater requirement of carbohydrates and calories to sufficiently support energy levels. This pertains to sports like ice hockey, field hockey, basketball, swimming, soccer and long-distance running.

You must also make a conscious effort to consume snacks containing protein and carbohydrates between meals. Fruit with string cheese is a great snack to support energy levels and maintain fueling between meals! For snack ideas to fuel your teen athlete, be sure to check out this article from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Water is vital to maintain peak performance during exercise. A good rule of thumb is to encourage consumption of 1 oz. of water per pound of body weight. It is worthwhile to invest in a good water bottle for your teen athlete to carry and keep on hand to foster good habits and prevent dehydration. Check out this article from USA Triathlon for fluid needs before, during and after exercise.

Eating breakfast is non-negotiable. Teens need adequate nutrition to support proper growth and development. Research has indicated nutrients and calories missed at breakfast by teens is unlikely made up for later in the day. This can result in insufficient intake which can hinder sports performance and prevent proper maturation. Great grab-and-go meals include a hard boiled-egg and fruit, string cheese and banana, yogurt parfait and whole-grain granola, berries and oatmeal.

A bedtime snack containing 15-20 grams of protein and approximately 30 grams of carbohydrates will support restful sleep and help build lean muscle tissue during the night. Athletes training intensely especially need bedtime protein to improve recovery and training adaptations (Trommelen & VanLoon, 2016). Cottage cheese, milk, and yogurt are rich in casein, a slow digesting protein. Pair an 8 oz. serving of cottage cheese with sliced bananas, which are a rich source of magnesium helping to relax the muscles in your body as well as lower brain temperature to regulate hormones.

Caffeine has no place in an adolescent’s diet. A 2018 report stated that greater than 40% of American teens surveyed had consumed an energy drink within the past three months. Several emergency visits have occurred due to energy drink consumption among teens between the ages of 12-17. The American Academy of Pediatrics has concluded that energy drinks are “not appropriate for children and adolescents, and should never be consumed.” Monster and Gatorade do not provide the same hydration benefits so be weary of advertisements that contribute to this confusion. Caffeine can negatively impact sleep, anxiety levels and also impair appetite.

Load up on fruits and vegetables between meals! The more colorful your athlete’s plate, the better their gut health and immune function will be. Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants and contain quality nutrients needed for optimal growth and development.

Calcium is critical for proper bone growth, development and overall health. However, calcium can only reach its full bone-growth potential in the presence of adequate vitamin D. Calcium and vitamin D work together. How? Vitamin D helps absorb calcium. Research has proven that American girls do not get adequate calcium in their diet after age 11. This deficiency increases risk of injuries like stress fractures. Recommendations for calcium and vitamin D vary. A great way to attain adequate calcium and vitamin D is to consume dairy productsOatmeal bowl topped with fruit and nut butter such as cheese, yogurt, milk and fortified beverages. A yogurt parfait with mixed berries is a great pre-exercise snack to fuel performance and also serves as a great breakfast to start the day!

Ramp up the color game! No, I am not talking about your outfit; I am talking about your plate. Be sure to fill your plate with many colorful fruits and vegetables that are rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that are essential for health and injury prevention. Citrus fruits, red and yellow bell peppers, dark leafy greens, broccoli, berries and tomatoes offer vitamin C. Vitamin C offers anti-inflammatory properties that speed up recovery and decrease risk of injuries.

Due to their zinc content, meat, fish, nuts, seeds and whole grains should be staple foods to help your youth athlete recover from a tough practice, while supporting growth and even provide wound-healing properties. Zinc is a component of proteins and enzymes and research has shown that insufficient zinc can delay recovery and wound-healing.

I hope you find useful these basic strategies to support your adolescent in their sport. It is important to make sure your adolescent is consuming balanced meals consistently with snacks in between before implementing supplements, as supplements are meant to satisfy the gaps in nutrition. Good nutritional habits must be established first. Click here for information on building a performance plate.

Nutrition is a secret weapon! It can make a good athlete great or a great athlete good, the choice is up to you!

In good health,

Wendi Irlbeck, MS, RDN

Evidence You Should Consume More Protein from a Dietitian Who Lifts!

What is protein?

  • Protein is primarily found in animal and dairy products.
  • Image result for protein"Protein enhances muscle mass, strength, endurance, muscle recovery and power.
  • Decreases inflammation, muscle protein breakdown.

First off, let’s talk about the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein. The current RDA is a modest 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. The RDA is established as the amount of a nutrient you need to meet your basic nutritional requirements. Essentially, it’s the minimum amount you need to keep from avoiding sickness- not the specific amount you’re supposed to consume each day. For example,

  • For a 140-pound person, that means about 50 grams of protein each day.
  • For a 200-pound person, that means about 70 grams of protein each day.

Reasons to eat more high-quality protein daily

  • Muscle growth
  • Strengthens bones
  • Hormone regulation
  • Aids in quicker recovery
  • Supports lean mass gains
  • Suppresses appetite and promotes satiety
  • Prevents chronic ailments associated with aging
  • Protects immune system against illness and injury
  • Aids in weight loss during times of energy restriction

 

That being said, let’s talk about why you need more protein. As you can see in the bullet list provided protein is VERY IMPORTANT. As a registered dietitian nutritionist and fitness professional I find the RDA to be quite confusing to the general public, athletes and coaches. To be honest, even dietitians can’t seem to agree on what to recommend for protein to their clients, patients and athletes. So if there is a misunderstanding among the food and nutrition experts there’s likely a misunderstanding across multiple populations. Especially young children, athletes and the elderly are in greater need for more protein.

Is more protein better?

The Protein Summit reported in a special supplement to the June issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN)  that Americans may eat too little protein, not too much. In fact, eating more protein can help provide the whole “package”. That means that a byproduct of consuming more protein is you’re getting other great nutrients such as B-vitamins, carbohydrates, minerals and healthy fats that offer the complete package. Naturally when you consume more protein you will typically consume less low-quality foods like simple or refined carbohydrates that people typically turn to when they’re “hungry”. Sweets, cookies, white breads and pastries won’t offer the healthy nutrition you’d get from a high-quality protein source.

Examples of high-quality protein sources:

These are just few of the high-quality protein sources out there. Most animal sources of protein such a

s meat, dairy, fish and chicken offer all essential amino acids in proportion needed by the human body. While plant-based proteins such as vegetables, nuts, beans and grains often lack one or more of the essential amino acids. That does not mean you should only consume animal products to attain your essential amino acids because you can utilize soybeans and quinoa which contain all nine essential amino acids needed. Click here for a complete list available if you’re interest in plant-based proteins.

 

Athletes and protein needs

Even athletes have higher needs. Provided the remodeling process of muscle proteins there is a much higher turn over rate as a result of higher training volumes. Specifically, in track and field athletes it would be wise to consume roughly 1.6 grams per kilogram of body mass each day if their goal is to increase muscle and pre

vent muscle breakdown. A good target protein intake should be between 1.6 and 2.4 grams per kilogram of body mass per day as cited in recent findings in a consensus statement on Sports Nutrition for Track and Field Athletes. A summary of the review can be accessed here .

The International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand on protein and exercise can also be accessed here which provides an objective and critical review related to the protein intake for healthy and fitness oriented individuals. For building muscle mass and maintaining muscle mass, an overall protein intake of 1.4-2.0

 

g/kg body weight/day (g/kg/d) is enough. However, there is evidence to support (3.0 g/kg/d) to support positive effects on body composition in strength-trained athletes to promote lean mass gains. It is optimal to spread out protein intake between 20-40 g/meal throughout the day.

As a registered dietitian nutritionist I strive to consume (2.0 g/kg/d) to support my health and performance goals. I encourage all of my clients and athletes to consume more protein. Especially if you’re trying to increase lean mass and strength gains. Higher protein will not make you fat, it will help support a healthy body and make you feel more satisfied!

Older adults and protein

Older adults are fighting off accelerated loss of muscle mass and function that is associated with aging, referred to as sarcopenia. For every decade after 40 years old you lose 8% of muscle mass and it increases to 15% after 70 years of age. Older adults should strive to consume 1.5 to 2.0 grams of high-quality protein per kg of body weight per day according to an article by the Center of Aging. Up to one-third of older adults don’t eat enough due to reduced appetite, impaired taste, swallowing difficulties and dental issues. During the aging process the body is less efficient and struggles to maintain muscle mass and strength along with bone health and optimal physiological function which warrants a greater need for protein.

Protein summary

Eat more high-quality protein. It won’t make you fat, harm your kidneys or bones. It will support lean tissue gains and help you recover overall while fighting age related muscle loss. Especially if you’re a female athlete, aging adult, male, or in general human with a beating pulse. That’s a joke, but really If you have questions about eating more protein or how to implement higher-quality sources into your diet email me and let’s have a conversation!

Your health and fitness coach,

Wendi Irlbeck, MS, RDN