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Nutrition for Student Athletes: Making Sure You're in Top Shape

Student athletes are busy people. That's why I continually stress paying attention to nutrition. Without the right diet, fatigue can set in, and performance on the playing field can suffer.

Here's how you can ensure you're in top shape for practice, training, and on game day:

Get Your Energy With Carbs

Jill Castle, a registered dietitian and childhood nutrition expert, recommends choosing whole-grain bread, crackers, cereal, pasta and potatoes as a meal two or more hours before you train. This will give you lasting energy.

During a game, practice, or training session, if you begin to feel tired, a sports drink will help you to refuel, as you most likely need to replenish your body with electrolytes. That will help you push to the finish. However, don't use sports drinks as your only source of hydration; water is always best unless you need fuel quick.

Get Protein Throughout the Day

Ryan Turner, a sports nutritionist at New York University, suggests lean proteins like grilled chicken and fish as part of your meal two or more hours before the game. Plant-based protein, like tofu, nuts and beans, make for excellent choices as well.

Milk is another way to get much-need protein and calcium. It also keeps you hydrated. For school-aged kids, one cup of milk actually provides 15-25 percent of protein that's needed. Drink with your meal roughly two or more hours before you play.

As always, stay away from fatty foods. Just say no to pizza, fries, desserts, etc. Fatty foods digest slowly, and that will weigh you down, especially during a game.

Hydrate Throughout the Day

Staying hydrated prevents muscle cramps and sustains optimal energy levels. Drinking a lot of water at once won't cut out. You must continually get fluids into your body in the days and hours leading up to the game.

In addition to drinking water, teens and tweens should regularly eat fruits and vegetables -- both of which have high water content. Bananas are good before and during the game as they have potassium. During the game, you should continue to hydrate with water.

Timing Is Everything

I'm a firm believer that when you eat is very important. As a young athlete, you must get in the habit of eating breakfast everyday.

Understand that your body requires two to three hours to digest a full meal. You should eat your full breakfast or lunch then. Be sure portions are suitable and don't overeat.

As you get closer to the game or training session (within 60 minutes), I advise that you eat quick-digesting foods that provide protein, such as low-fat Greek yogurt, granola bars and peanut butter sandwiches, along with fruits that hydrate you, like watermelon and oranges.

After exercising, game, or practice, have a snack that provides nutrients and hydration, such as yogurt, fresh fruit and granola bars. Once you get home for a family dinner, have a balanced meal that includes all five food groups: veggies, fruit, meat, grains and dairy.

A Note About Drinking Your Calories

The growing popularity of protein shakes, smoothies and other liquids has led many teens and tweens to drink their lunch. I'm against this, as studies have shown our bodies don't register calories taken in through drinking the same way we do through eating.

So, chew your lunch before the game. That way, you maximize the nutritional benefits of what you're consuming.

A Word About Food Safety

Foodborne illnesses and diseases affect nearly 50 million Americans per year, according to the CDC. Clearly, this is a common problem. Especially around game day, you need to be extra cautious. Make sure meats, eggs, yogurt and other perishable foods are well-refrigerated.

Getting the Most Out of Yourself

By getting yourself in the right eating habits, you can optimize your energy levels and maintain complete focus during a game. Set a plan -- and stick to it. With discipline and commitment, you can eat, and perform, like a champion.


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