As parents, coaches and mentors, we have a responsibility to help young adults make the right nutritional and wellness choices that will best support both their academic and athletic endeavors.
Even in households committed to good nutrition and healthy habits, it can be challenging to provide a high school athlete with all that he or she needs to be successful on and off the field. Incorporating a healthy diet, getting proper sleep and, of course, hard work and perseverance are key factors that go into having a healthy life ... but also are keys to making successful athletes.
In addition, athletes can also look to improve their overall health (and consequently, their athletic performance) by incorporating dietary supplements into their wellness routine. Products like omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics and multivitamins can help ensure that athletes get all the nutrients they need. Other supplement products, like protein powders, can be beneficial for some athletes, as well.
A multivitamin offers nutritional insurance to ensure that daily requirements for vitamins and minerals are met. Numerous national surveys have shown that young people fall short in important nutrients such as calcium, magnesium and vitamin D. These nutrients are not only important for the physical demands of being an athlete, but are also important for mental performance, energy and immune function.
The omega-3 essential fatty acids EPA and DHA are two nutrients required by the body for proper growth and maintenance of the nervous system and brain. They also combat excess inflammation and are key components of the network of nutrients required for tissue repair. Dietary sources of these valuable nutrients are cold water fatty fish, such as anchovies, sardines and salmon.
As a parent, you can either make sure your teenager consumes a serving of fatty fish twice weekly or give them a daily fish oil supplement. The importance of omega-3 fats goes beyond the formative years; studies show an inadequate intake of omega-3s have long-term health effects on cardiovascular and cognitive function.
Parents should be aware of the importance of the good bacteria that live in our guts, called probiotics. We have more bacteria in our gut than we have cells in our body, and these bacteria have important health-promoting functions. They manufacture vitamins, break down food and protect us from infection. The physiological stress of training and emotional stress of the formative years can upset the balance of good bacteria in the gut.
Eating fermented foods rich in probiotics or taking a probiotic supplement are two ways that can ensure a young athlete’s gut has all of the beneficial bacteria it needs. Gut health may not seem directly relevant to a young athlete’s performance, but once you’ve seen a skilled athlete suffer from chronic gut problems, the relevance becomes clear.
For sports like football and lacrosse, young athletes often strive to add power and strength to their game. They may seek muscle building dietary supplements — and there’s a plethora of solid scientific evidence showing that in combination with strength training, consuming extra lean protein can support muscle growth and recovery.
Protein powders offer a safe and effective way to increase protein consumption without consuming extra dietary fat often associated with protein-rich foods. Making a protein powder smoothie with bananas and berries can be an excellent way to sneak in a few extra servings of fruit per day. Protein powders can be derived from whey, soy, rice, pea or other, which can accommodate most food allergies and sensitivities. This is, however, a category where parents may need to help kids sift through some of the hype and over-the-top claims.
When it comes to purchasing any supplement product — sports nutrition or otherwise — a simple rule of thumb applies; if its sounds too good to be true, it probably is. For example, if a product promises to give you steroid-like results without the steroids, you’re either wasting your money or asking for trouble.
Lastly, every young adult should have a yearly physical performed by a physician, and should discuss any supplements he or she is taking or considering — whether for sports training or general health. A proper consultation with a medical professional will also ensure that your child is not taking any product that may interfere with other medications and is appropriate for individual age, weight, and activity levels.
Parents, too, should make an effort to understand these products, why they’re beneficial and how they should be used. Include young athletes in a dialogue with a nutritionist, registered dietitian, or other knowledgeable healthcare practitioner to consider individual health status, diet, and athletic activities and goals. The integration of this information can help guide your child to nutritional supplements that can support their growth, performance and recovery.
Having an open dialogue about diet and nutritional supplements will also help to ensure that your budding superstar is not taking products that may not be necessary, and to make sure your child doesn’t become vulnerable to products being sold by unscrupulous manufacturers willing to make false and misleading marketing claims.
Whatever sports supplements your high school athlete decides to utilize in a quest to be the next Tom Brady or Mia Hamm, it’s important to remind them that supplements are not magic bullets. Supplements alone will not allow them to reach their athletic goals, but can only serve as part of an overall healthy lifestyle that can optimize potential. They must work hard, put in the time and effort and have a positive attitude if they want to be their absolute best.
Above all else, they should have fun!