Teen Athletes Need To Eat Well To Play Well

Eating to compete

By Stacey Freed 

[D&C] For student athletes, food provides the winning edge

High school athletes need to understand that food is fuel—and not just any food. Just as they wouldn’t put diesel in a car that uses traditional gasoline to make it run, they shouldn’t be putting the wrong foods into their bodies if they want optimum athletic performance. And while teenagers are capable and certainly have the ability to buy and make their own food, it’s usually a parent or guardian who’s responsible for what they eat. What do student athletes need to keep satiated and hydrated and ready to perform?


In her Sports Nutrition Guide Book, dietitian Nancy Clark writes that “a survey of 50 collegiate football players reports they averaged 59% of their calories from sugars and fats.” That’s not where you want your young athlete to get his or her fuel. An active teenager may require 3,500 calories a day, and it’s back to basics: Simply put, they should eat healthy foods and less junk food.

What a student athlete eats on a practice day is not all the different from what they should eat on game day. “You compete at your best if you train at your best, and you only train at your best if you’re well-fueled,” Clark says.

But when your athlete eats is also important. In some high schools, students have lunch at 10:30 a.m. By the time their late afternoon practice rolls around, they’re hungry. “That’s a real challenge,” says Andrea Chernus, registered dietitian and co-author with former New York Giants sports nutritionist Heidi Skolnik, of Nutrient Timing for Peak Performance. “Depending on school policies, they may have to sneak in a sandwich between classes. What they’re going to be fueled with for practice is really what they’ve eaten during the day—and not right before they get on the field.”

Breakfast and lunch are important because those nutrients are stored in the muscles. What student athletes should eat before they exercise depends on the amount of time between eating and exercising.

Maybe two hours before a game or practice, they can have a small turkey sandwich or a slice of cheese on an English muffin, a yogurt smoothie or toast and peanut butter. If there’s no fresh food available, a Clif Bar will work. “But they should have 10 to 20 ounces of fluid—diluted juice or water—in addition to what they’re eating,” Chernus says.

An hour before, they should eat something even smaller and with less fat—maybe an apple and a cheese stick, or half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. If they’re at home, they can eat a small bowl of cereal and milk. They also should have about 10 ounces of water. The point is to eat something that will give them some energy but is healthy and easily digestible.

If they’re cutting it close and only have 30 minutes, they should grab a bagel or handful of pretzels—something with more carbs that will digest quickly and easily and won’t bother the stomach. “You’re looking at food more for fuel than for perfect nutrition,” Chernus says. What they’re eating at this point is “just topping off the tank.” Their real strength is coming from everything they ate earlier in the day.

The other side of exercise is recovery. Eating the right foods after exercise will help to repair muscle tissue and can help spare an athlete future injuries. “You want a little bit of protein and carbs,” Chernus says. “Dairy products are a good source of the amino acid leucine, which triggers muscle protein synthesis and repairs muscle tissues.” She suggests a recovery snack of yogurt and crackers or a piece of fruit or chocolate milk, which is easy and portable. “Two hours after that, you want to follow up with a meal.”

A side note: A lot of teenagers, athletes included, are on medication for ADD or ADHD. The medication may make them feel full. But not having an appetite doesn’t negate their need for nutrients. “They need to figure out what they can tolerate,” Clark says. “Liquids, solid, crunchy, smooshy, sweet, sour, savory—they’ve got to figure out what it is they like so they will have gas in their tank.”

Chernus suggests trying smoothies or other drinks instead of solid foods “to help them get the fuel they need. And get them involved with picking out the ingredients.”


Kris Barrett, a sports performance coach at Power Train in East Rochester, sees a lot of high school and college athletes and helps them create meal plans so they can reach their goals.

“Most of the guys are trying to gain weight,” Barrett says, but the message about healthy nutrition is always the same. If an athlete wants to gain weight for football, for example, “he could eat pizza every day and gain the 10 pounds, but it would affect his ability on the field; it will get stored as fat and [he] won’t have it for energy,” says Barrett, who has a degree in exercise and nutrition science. “The coach isn’t going to be very happy.”

Often, female athletes want to maintain weight, get more toned and look stronger. One client, a female hockey player, “wanted to maintain her weight and play optimally,” Barrett says. “We saw that she was eating a lot of junk food.” He developed a meal plan including “a lot of brown rice, oatmeal and sweet potatoes for carbs; eggs and egg whites, chicken breast, salmon [for protein] and healthy fats—almonds, walnuts, avocados, olive oils.”

Whether you’re the one stuffing food into a brown paper bag or your teenager buys lunch, it’s ultimately about educating him or her to make good choices and having that reinforced elsewhere.

Student athletes especially need protein to build muscle; carbohydrates for energy; fats to protect cell membranes and regulate blood pressure and heart rate, among other things; minerals for healthy bones and to prevent injuries; vitamins for overall health; and water for hydration and to help maintain their energy and strength. Which foods they choose to deliver all this goodness is important.

“Proteins should come from lean meats and eggs. Carbs from fruits and vegetables,” says Scott Barker, director of athletics for Pittsford schools. Having been a head football coach, assistant wrestling coach and assistant girl’s lacrosse coach over the years, Barker has seen the effects of eating well. He believes that over the past 10 to 15 years, student athletes have become more aware of the connection between good nutrition and good performance.

“Coaches are talking to athletes about managing their nutrition, making better food choices and understanding that what they put in their body will be directly reflected in their performance. And anytime a coach can have a competitive edge over an opponent, they’ll take it,” Barker says.

As Clark puts it, “Educate kids as to why they want to eat healthy food; teach them that it’s fuel, and that they want to be as nice to their bodies as they are to their cars.”