Don’t Get Schooled after School: High School Nutrition

Fueling young athletes

It’s fall and high school athletes are in the  midst of their sports season.  Often when we think about optimizing their performance we focus on what they need to eat before and during their actual workouts. This article focuses on fueling while teenagers are in school to prepare for their best workout after school.

Even more important than fueling during a sport, the hours kids spend during a day in school play a larger role in providing energy to fuel their keen minds.  However, knowing this doesn’t make it easy to get healthy snacks into their stomachs. I have found that even the most healthy households of active parents, can’t convince teenagers they want to eat whole grain crackers instead of Doritos or drink plain water instead of Coke.

Everyone agrees that there is too much sugar in the diets of teenagers. Sugar is added to most snacks and processed foods, soft drinks and energy drinks. It doesn’t matter if its “in the raw” or agave, or evaporated cane juice, it is metabolized quickly and can cause abrupt changes (high to low) in blood sugar levels. This includes fruit roll-ups and fruit juice even if no sugar is added. These changes in blood sugar levels  make teenagers crabby and irritable, which really impedes your ability to get them to do what you want them to. Protein bars boasting 20 grams of protein are glorified candy bars that reinforce the desire for sweets. Neither adults or teens need to be eating them on a regular basis. Can they be used post workout as an emergency snack? Yes, in moderation.

Buddy FruitsFruit purees are jumping on the ‘real food’ bandwagon providing another way to get fruits & veggies into the diet. Earth’s Best, Happy Tot, Mash Ups, and Buddy Fruits, are certified Organic, contain vitamins and minerals, and contain natural fruit sugars which are ideal as a pre-workout snack. Use these blends as snacks during the day by combining with low-fat yogurt or a squeeze of Justin’s Peanut Butter (single serving packet) to stabilize blood sugar levels. Many of these brands contain chia seeds, a good source of omega fatty acids, fiber and contribute to feeling full.

In addition to the high sugar content in soda or energy drinks, drinking a diet soda or other sugar beverage curbs appetite. By 3 pm, if they have not eaten breakfast or lunch, they will be hungry and tired instead of ready to run. What is the solution? I do not give parenting advice, but if your athlete is focused on performance, use any persuasion method available to convince them to eat real food during the day.

Its a challenge not to be distracted by new snack products that beckon your gaze as you walk through the grocery store.

I recommend updated versions of ‘old school’ standbys for snacks during the school day:

  • non-hydrogenated peanut butter with a slice of apple or banana on whole grain bread or tortilla,
  • low-fat + low-sugar oatmeal granola bar without chocolate or yogurt topping
  • most “healthy” snack bars are no better than a candy bar so be sure to check the fat & sugar content,
  • avoid snack bars with yogurt or chocolate topping and you will easily reduce your fat & sugar intake

Besides the nutrition in sweets, consider habits that are being created during the teenage years and how difficult it is to break them when you are an adult. Once a teen is fixated on the taste of sweetness it is extremely difficult to change it.  If sweet treats are associated with emotional triggers (e.g. comfort foods) this may also affect their food relationship in the future. That being said, there is a time for ice cream or froyo as part of a weekly family ritual. This creates family time while enjoying the food in moderation as a treat.

It’s ironic that teenagers, an age group not lacking in energy, are consuming energy drinks on a daily basis. Teenagers do not need caffeine to get through their day. They need fuel which comes in the form of calories. If they are not eating or sleeping enough they will feel tired. Consuming too much caffeine could hinder their recovery from training if they develop difficulty sleeping, or lead to overtraining and injury due to a false sense of energy and adrenaline during a workout. The real draw is the sugar and caffeine.

Does it really matter if they drink a Monster energy drink every day? Yes it does. When it comest to teenagers, caffeine intake during one Energy Drinksday can be outrageously high when looking at all the possible sources: soda, energy drinks, stimulant OTC pills (e.g No Doz), coffee, tea, and pre-workout energy boosters (e.g. Advocare Spark 120 mg).  It can be difficult to determine the amount of caffeine in energy drinks because it is not required on the supplement or nutrition facts label.  Typically caffeine is listed as part of an ‘energy blend,’  without a value in milligrams declared. This leaves room for much variability per bottle that is produced. For example, 5-hour Energy mentions its caffeine amount is approximate to a 12 oz coffee (160 mg) but third party testing by found 207 mg caffeine per 1.93 oz bottle of 5-Hour Energy in 2012.

Third party testing also found 206 mg caffeine per 5 oz Monster Energy M3 Super Concentrate. If a 17 year old drinks one of each  per day, that is > 400 mg caffeine and may cause restlessness, anxiety or heart palpitations, in this age group.

One more note about energy drinks is the amount of B vitamins added to them. A typical teenager diet will contain sufficient B vitamins over a week and do not need supplemental amounts. Most energy drinks add B3 (niacin), B6 and B12 to substantiate the “energy” in energy drinks. Even though water soluble B vitamins pose less risk of toxicity than fat soluble vitamins, if more than one of these energy drinks are consumed, amounts of those vitamins exceed 100% Daily Value. Drinking two bottles of 5-Hour Energy would provide 80 mg of B6 and 60 mg of niacin. This is equivalent to the tolerable or highest (Upper Limit) amount of B6 (80 mg) and twice the UL (30 mg) of niacin, recommended by the Institute of Medicine for 14-18 year olds. If you have ever experienced a “niacin flush” you know that you do not want your child to feel that uncomfortable sensation.



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