Injury and Illness “Insurance” through Proper Nutrition

by Jodi Sheakley, MS, CFT 

Student-athletes face additional challenges with back-to-school season, such as less sleep due to homework and extracurricular activities. So anytime we can introduce “two-for-one” deals that make their lives easier in any of their academics, sports, and other life arenas, we score a victory. A sound nutrition program helps provide that balance, since the same foods that contribute to your young athlete’s athletic performance also build a healthy immune system – who wouldn’t want that kind of win?

Teen athletes not only need extra calories, but extra quality calories, to meet the demands of their sport and to support their growing bodies. And while aiming for nutrition that fuels athletic performance and development is a good thing, aiming for nutrition that fuels them on the playing field and their physical growth while preventing injury and illness is a great thing.

Accomplishment vs. Avoidance

Many of us think in terms of how quality nutrition can contribute to athletic performance: by developing healthy red blood cells for efficient oxygen delivery to cells; refilling glycogen stores so that muscles can perform longer; and building muscle fibers so that they grow bigger, stronger, and capable of a higher level of play.

On the flip side (though equally as important), we may not often consider what proper nutrition helps us avoid: injury and illness. We may not be able to easily count the number of times that an athlete doesn’t catch a wicked virus or avoids the pitfalls of dehydration. However, we can easily spot those players who are focused, in top physical shape, and “performing at premium.” A healthy diet can certainly yield all of these benefits, no matter whether they’re easily visible or not. Therefore, consider proper nutrition as one of the most effective, affordable, and simple forms of “health insurance” that exists!

Eight Strategies to Sidestep Injury and Illness

With the ability to repair cells and recover more quickly, young athletes’ bodies will be less prone to injury and illness and better able to play at peak levels:

1) Hydration – Maintaining proper fluid balance to avoid dehydration, overheating, fatigue, and more severely, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, or heat stroke is key. Trick question: which water intake in the most important to ensuring that one is hydrated: (a) the days leading up to a major event, (b) fluid intake immediately before the event, (c) during the practice or game, or (d) following the activity? Answer: the whole glass! Sipping the days, hours, and minutes before, during, and after directly contributes to well-being…in short, all the time! More specifically, athletes generally do fine on plain water if an activity runs 60 minutes or less; for events that run 90+ minutes, an electrolyte replacement beverage (diluted is ok) will keep glycogen stores from becoming depleted.

2) Adequate Caloric Input = Quality Performance Output – Caloric needs vary widely among adolescents and, appropriate intake is critical to playing at top level. Too few calories and the athlete feels fatigued; too many and s/he may feel sluggish. Working with a nutrition professional or your physician can help you pinpoint the caloric needs for your teen athlete in order to provide adequate energy during training and competition.

3) Balanced Diet – A balanced, varied diet should provide all the necessary nutrients (carbohydrates, fats, protein, minerals, vitamins, water, etc.) to support growth and development, regulate metabolism, boost the immune system, and assist with all bodily functions. As a result, the athlete improves his/her chances for avoiding vitamin/mineral deficiencies. After all, he can’t do the team or athletic event much good if he’s too sick to make it to the playing field…or if she undernourished.

Paying attention to the “big three” macronutrients is a terrific starting point:

Carbohydrates – Besides circulating blood sugar, energy stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles will need to be replaced by carbohydrates in diet, and preferably within an hour or two following exercise. If glycogen levels aren’t replenished, early fatigue, lower exercise intensity, and increased chances for injury & illness may result, according to Toni Tickel Branner, M.A.
Protein – Protein aids in repairing body tissues, making hormones, enzymes, and antibodies, plus transporting fluids and energy. And while many athletes constantly strive to boost their protein intake, many health experts agree that protein insufficiency rarely occurs. On the other hand, too much protein (including protein from poor-quality sources) is more common and places a strain on the kidneys.
Fat – Necessary for supporting heart and brain health, preserving cell membranes and skin, making hormones, and transporting certain vitamins, healthy fats can be found in monounsaturated fats (olive oil) and Omega-3 fatty acids (salmon or tuna).

4) All the Small Things – It’s ok to micromanage when it comes to the specific food choices that your child makes. While a wide array of nutrients is necessary for optimal health, young athletes need increased amounts of especially the following vitamins and minerals:

Calcium – to strengthen bones and for growing bodies; sources include lowfat dairy, spinach, cheese, canned baked beans, oranges, trail mix (made with nuts, seeds, and chocolate chips), almonds, green peas, soy/tofu, raw almonds, calcium-fortified orange juice, bok choy, broccoli, kale, turnip greens, parsley, mustard greens, endive
*Note: Calcium isn’t effective without vitamin D, which can be found in orange juice, soy milk, fortified cereals, egg yolks, salmon, & sardines…or obtained by 15-20 minutes of sunshine.

Potassium – to maintain fluid balance and replace electrolytes lost through sweat; try bananas, potatoes with skin, dried fruits (raisins, figs), nuts
Fiber – adds bulk and helps maintain proper digestion; can be found in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, fortified cereals, and snack bars
Vitamin C – strengthens the immune system and helps repair tissues; found in produce

Sodium – helps replace lost electrolytes; available in sports drinks and salty snacks like pretzels; also try a baked potato with a few shakes of salt
5) Training on Treats – There’s a time and place for everything, whether we’re talking about plays on the field or treats off the field. Some of teens’ preferred snacks often steal the place of higher-quality foods that offer more nutrients and health-boosting effects. Limiting less-than-optimal choices in favor of healthier snacks most of the time may contribute to a top-notch game. Athletes committed to their wellness on and off the court consistently ask, “Is this choice ‘for the benefit of’ or ‘at the expense of’ the goals I want to achieve?” As a result, they’ll be more likely to avoid illness and injury, plus play at a higher level, especially in the last minutes of the game.

6) “Eat the Rainbow” – Will Lane, M.D., suggests eating a variety of fruits and vegetables from all colors of the produce spectrum. As athletes increase their physical activity, so does their levels of oxidative stress and production of free radicals. To combat the potential damage to cells, he suggests consuming antioxidants through whole food, specifically, fruits and vegetables.

Toni Branner, M.A., further explains that different-colored of fruits and vegetables contain different nutrients, and each performs specific functions in the body that contribute to overall health. In her book, The Care and Feeding of an Athlete, some of the examples she offers include:

– Blue & Purple – stop free radicals; berries, raisins, dried plums, purple cabbage

– Green – strengthen bones and teeth; avocados, green apples, green peppers, spinach, snow peas, zucchini, sugar snap peas, artichokes

– White – support heart health; jicama, onions, bananas, mushrooms, garlic

– Yellow & Orange – boost immune system; apricots, cantaloupe, mangoes, peaches, oranges, pineapples, lemon, tangerines, yellow squash, carrots

– Red – contributes to heart health; sources include red apples, cherries, strawberries, radishes, tomatoes, red onions, watermelon, beets

7) Bridging the Gap with a Whole-Foods Supplement – Is your teen consuming the recommended amount of 9-13 servings of fruits and vegetables each day? If you’re like most, busy schedules and general lifestyle demands pose major orchard and garden challenges!

As mentioned earlier, athletes have increased needs for quality nutrition because they produce more free radicals than others. Without adequate antioxidants, phytochemicals, and phytonutrients to stop oxidative stress, damage may occur to muscle fibers, red blood cells, cell membranes, and proteins…therefore resulting in muscle fatigue, injury, and susceptibility to illness.

Therefore, you may consider a whole-foods supplement to help bridge the gap between what your teen is consuming and what s/he needs. Peer-reviewed research shows that isolated, man-made vitamins have not been found to be effective in lowering oxidative stress except in higher toxic doses (which may cause side effects like kidney damage). Conversely, whole-foods supplements like Juice Plus+ have been shown to enhance immune function, improve circulation, reduce inflammation, and reduce oxidative stress.

Classified as a whole foods rather than a supplement, you may wish to consider this option to round out your nutrition, increase nutrient absorption, and outlast the competition!

8) “Home Team” Approach

Because the general guidelines for the young athlete also work for the rest of the family, it’s an opportunity to adopt a “team” approach when managing your family’s nutrition. Apart from physical benefits, remember that your young athlete’s mental health remains as important. Supporting your child without pressure is critical in building healthy attitudes about nutrition. Approach him or her with positivity and avoid the battleground associated with a “good” vs. “evil” food philosophy. Instead, offer encouragement and congratulations, especially when s/he makes sound food choices.

Finally, considering all of the time that athletes invest in training, they deserve the same level of education when it comes to nutrition. Paying close attention to food choices can help ensure maximal performance – most importantly, through the final seconds of the game.

Jodi Sheakley, MS, CFT, is the founder of Nutrivita Wellness, a healthy living consulting practice. She works extensively with family nutrition, weight management, nutrition for athletes, and whole-foods supplements. For more information, email or call 704.965.0785.

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