Nutrition 101 for High School Athletes

The Importance of a Healthy Diet:

The food you eat supplies much more than just fuel for your body to function properly.  It provides the raw materials from which your skin, hair, muscle, bone, and all other tissues are made.  Your diet provides nutrients that are necessary to manufacture hormones and enzymes that control the function of every cell in your body.  Your body also uses these nutrients to make neurotransmitters that regulate how you think and feel.  Therefore, ensuring a proper balance of nutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals) is essential to your overall health, muscle development and performance.  You really are what you eat, and that’s why a balanced diet is SO important.

Eating three meals daily (starting with a hearty breakfast, as breakfast sets your metabolism for the day), and 2-3 snacks daily is the best way to keep you properly energized and satisfied.  Eating or not eating affects hormone levels that can cause muscle loss as well, so it is extremely important NOT to skip meals.  Healthy snacking, especially before practices or games, is also important.  This will provide the energy you need for optimal performance, and more importantly will help guard against injuries and help with recovery time.  You should develop good, consistent eating habits, even during the off-season, as this will provide a solid foundation during times of competition.  Remember, the best fueled athlete is the better athlete…

The quality and quantity of the food you consume is important.  The metabolic requirements for active teens can be as high as 3,500 calories a day, for example, which means your body requires this amount of calories to function properly.  Also, the less processed the food, the more nutritious it is.


Carbohydrates provide our main source of energy (they are the body’s preferred source of energy) and are found in unrefined whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables.  They are also good sources of fiber (the indigestible portion of our diet that helps with the absorption of nutrients into the body), vitamins and minerals, and are essential for optimal health.

Nature provides many sources of good carbohydrates:

  • Organic fruits and vegetables
  • Beans and lentils (also known as legumes)
  • Unrefined whole grains (some examples include 100% whole grain bread, brown rice, unprocessed oatmeal such as steel-cut oats, and barley).

Foods that are high in refined (highly processed) carbohydrates or sugars should be avoided, as they do not provide the body with optimal nutrition and over time can lead to excess fat storage, low energy levels, muscle loss, and increased risk of chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease as you age.  These foods include the following:

  • Sodas (both sweetened and diet)
  • Candy
  • Baked goods (cakes, cookies, etc.) made with white flour
  • White bread
  • Sugary breakfast cereals (including instant oatmeal)
  • White rice and pasta
  • Junk food
  • French fries and potato chips

Strive to increase your daily intake of fruits and vegetables (eating twice as many vegetables as fruits daily is recommended), whole grains and legumes, which will give your body the energy it needs for optimal health and athletic performance.


Protein is a key component of muscle, skin, hair, and other tissues of the body.  You also need protein to manufacture the enzymes and hormones that are involved in digestion, metabolism (how your body produces energy from the food you eat), tissue growth and repair, which is why protein should be added to every meal.  Good sources of protein include:

  • Lean meats (beef, chicken, pork, lamb and fish)
  • eggs
  • Organic dairy products (such as cheese and plain yogurt)
  • Raw nuts (avoid peanuts)
  • Natural nut butters (peanut and almond butter)
  • Fermented soy products (such as miso, tamari and tempeh
  • Legumes (beans, peas and lentils)


Fats are needed for your body to function properly.  Besides being an energy source, fat is used in the protection of cell membranes and helps regulate blood pressure, heart rate, blood clotting and the nervous system (especially important with proper brain functioning).  Fats also help maintain healthy hair and nails, and carry fat-soluble vitamins from the food you eat into your body.  There are two types of healthy fats:  Saturated (usually from animal fats such as butter and cheese) and Unsaturated (from raw nuts, seeds, fish and plant oils).  Look for foods low in saturated fats and avoid bad fats (trans fats or hydrogenated fats that are chemically processed), found in fried foods, junk food, and some cooking oils.  Good sources of healthy fats include avocados, cold water fish (tuna, salmon, and mackerel), raw nuts (except peanuts), nut butters, seeds, and cooking oils (Coconut, Olive, Safflower and Sesame Oil).


Minerals are critical to normal body function; they are not produced in the body and must be obtained through the food we eat and by proper supplementation.  The BIG 4 include calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium.  Calcium and magnesium help build healthy bones, especially important for stress prevention (such as stress fractures).  Sodium and potassium are important in maintaining proper fluid balance (electrolytes) and muscle functioning.  Good sources of these nutrients include dairy products, green leafy vegetables, beans/lentils, fish, nuts/seeds, whole grains, bananas, potatoes, beets, oranges and peppers.


Vitamins play an important role in our overall health and nutritional status as well and also must be obtained through the food we eat and proper supplementation.  There are two types—fat-soluble (which are stored in the body) and water-soluble (which cannot be stored and need to be replenished often).  Good vitamin sources include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, meats, nuts, dairy products and plant oils.


Water is also essential to proper body function.  It helps regulate and maintain body temperature, transports nutrients and oxygen to the bloodstream, removes waste products (toxins), and helps maintain proper fluid balance and muscle functioning, especially crucial during times of strenuous activity such as sporting events.  It’s important to drink water throughout the day, but especially before, during, and after periods of extended physical activity to avoid dehydration, which can zap strength, energy and coordination, and lead to other health problems and injuries.  Experts recommend that young athletes drink approximately 1 cup (240 milliliters) of water for every 20-30 minutes of physical activity.  Shorter competitions may not require drinking during the activity, but it’s important to drink afterwards to restore fluid lost through sweat.  Although many sports drinks are available, plain water is usually enough to hydrate the body.  Gatorade and other sports drinks available have added sugar, which should be avoided.

Game Day

It’s important to eat well on game days, but you should eat at least 2 hours before the event — early enough to digest the food before game time.  The meal itself should not be very different from what you’ve eaten throughout training. It should have plenty of carbs and lean protein and be low in fat, because fat is harder to digest and can cause an upset stomach.  After the game or event, have a well-balanced meal. Your body will be rebuilding muscle tissue and restoring carbs and fluids for up to 24 hours after the competition, so it’s important that you get plenty of protein, fat, and carbs in the postgame hours.  Also, don’t forget to drink plenty of water before, during and after games.  Most of all, it’s important to eat healthy meals and snacks consistently, even during the off-season, as this will provide a solid foundation during times of competition.

As well as adequate water intake pre and post activity, good healthy snacks should be encouraged—which provide the energy needed before and after sporting activities.  If it’s going to be a long practice or game, pack a healthy snack — a small tuna or natural peanut butter sandwich on whole grain bread, a handful of nuts and a small piece of fruit are all good options.  Always avoid candy and soda; while the sugar may give you a quick energy boost, it will fade quickly, and you won’t have enough energy to finish the fourth quarter!

Instead of having a Powerbar or Gatorade, try some of these healthier snacks that will provide the nutrients you need to keep up your energy and have a great game:

  • Hard boiled eggs
  • Whole grain pita with hummus; raw veggies and hummus
  • Whole grain bread with natural peanut butter and banana
  • Whole grain crackers and cheese
  • Fruit and a handful of nuts
  • Plain yogurt with fruit and nuts
  • Fruit smoothies (blend 6-8 oz of rice or almond milk with a medium banana, ½ cup berries and 1-2 ice cubes for a nutrient-rich and energizing snack).
  • Tuna sandwich on whole grain bread
  •  *Paleo Bars and *Whey Protein (*offered at Heritage Integrative Healthcare)

Foods high in potassium are also recommended, especially post-exercise, to replace electrolytes lost from perspiration.  Bananas, yogurt, melons, oranges, strawberries, pears, peaches, grapes, sunflower seeds and walnuts are good choices and easy snacks to pack.

Label Reading Tips

The first thing you’ll see is the label on the front of the food package. Manufacturers can say most anything they want on the front label (to get the real story, see the Nutrition Facts panel on the back, especially the Ingredients). Here are some terms you may see there, and what they really mean:

  • Fortified, enriched, added, extra, and plus. This means nutrients such as minerals and fiber have been removed and synthetic vitamins added in processing. Look for 100% whole-wheat or 100% whole grain bread for example.
  • Fruit drink. This means there’s probably little or no real fruit, and lots of sugar. Look for products that say “100% Fruit Juice,” or better yet, have the piece of fruit instead, which is better for blood sugar balance.
  • Made with wheat, rye, or multigrain. These products may have very little whole grain. Look for the word “whole” before the grain to ensure you’re getting a 100% whole grain product (wheat flour is just another name for white flour).
  • Natural. The manufacturer started with a natural source, but once it’s processed, the food may not resemble anything natural. Look for “100% All Natural” and “No Preservatives.”
  • Organically grown, pesticide-free, or no artificial ingredients. Trust only labels that say “Certified Organically Grown.”
  • Sugar-free or fat-free. Don’t assume the product is low-calorie. The manufacturer may have compensated with unhealthy ingredients — and have no fewer calories than the real thing.

As a general guideline, ingredients are listed in descending order—the main ingredient is listed first and the smallest ingredient is listed last; usually, fewer ingredients are best, and always avoid products with words you can’t pronounce.

What is Insulin Resistance?

Insulin resistance is a condition that develops when the body cannot use insulin properly, which, over time, causes the development of chronic diseases of aging. Insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, helps the body use glucose (a form of sugar that is the body’s main source of energy). Our digestive system breaks food down into glucose, which then travels through bloodstream to cells throughout the body. Glucose in the blood is called blood glucose, also known as blood sugar. As the blood glucose level rises after a meal, the pancreas releases insulin to help cells take in and use the glucose.

When people are insulin resistant, their muscle, fat, and liver cells do not respond properly to insulin. As a result, their bodies need more insulin to help glucose enter cells. The pancreas tries to keep up with this increased demand for insulin by producing more.  Eventually, the pancreas fails to keep up with the body’s need for insulin and excess glucose builds up in the bloodstream.  This blood sugar disregulation contributes to obesity, cholesterol abnormalities, elevated blood pressure (hypertension), osteoporosis, cancer, and ultimately the development of Type 2 diabetes (also called adult-onset diabetes) and cardiovascular disease (heart attack/stroke).  Therefore, controlling your insulin levels is one of the most powerful strategies you can possibly implement.

Symptoms of Insulin Resistance


The most common feature of Insulin Resistance is that it wears people out; some are tired just in the morning or afternoon, others are exhausted all day.

Brain fogginess

Sometimes the fatigue of Insulin Resistance is physical, but often it’s mental. The inability to focus is the most evident symptom. Poor memory, loss of creativity, poor grades in school often accompany Insulin Resistance, as do various forms of “learning disabilities.”

Low blood sugar

Mild, brief periods of low blood sugar (called hypoglycemia) are normal during the day, especially if meals are not eaten on a regular schedule. But prolonged periods of this “hypoglycemia,” accompanied by many of the symptoms listed here, especially physical and mental fatigue, are not normal.  Feeling agitated, jittery and moody is common in Insulin Resistance, with almost immediate relief once food is eaten.

Intestinal bloating

Most intestinal gas is produced from carbohydrates in the diet. Insulin Resistance sufferers who eat carbohydrates suffer from gas, lots of it.


Many people with Insulin Resistance get sleepy immediately after eating a meal containing more than 20% or 30% carbohydrates. This means typically a pasta meal, or even a meat meal that includes potatoes or bread and a sweet dessert

Increased weight and fat storage

For most people, too much weight is too much fat. In males, a large abdomen is the more obvious and earliest sign of Insulin Resistance. In females, it’s prominent in the buttocks.

Increased triglycerides

High triglycerides in the blood are often found in overweight persons. But even those who are not overweight may have stores of fat in their arteries as a result of Insulin Resistance.  These triglycerides are the direct result of carbohydrates in the diet being converted by insulin. See additional information about Increased triglycerides.

Do You Know How Margarine is Made?

Manufacturers begin with the cheapest oils (many of which are now from genetically modified crops)—soy, corn, cottonseed or canola, already rancid from the extraction process—and mix them with tiny metal particles-usually nickel oxide.

The oil with its nickel catalyst is then hydrogenated (subjected to hydrogen gas) in a high-pressure, high-temperature reactor. Next, soap-like emulsifiers and starch are squeezed into the mixture to give it a better consistency; the oil is yet again subjected to high temperatures when it is steam-cleaned, which removes its unpleasant odor.

Margarine’s natural color, an unappetizing gray, is removed by bleach. Dyes and strong flavors must then be added to make it resemble butter. Finally, the mixture is compressed and packaged in blocks or tubs and sold as a health food.

Now, is this something you really want to eat?

 ALWAYS choose real organic butter!

The Truth About High Fructose Corn Syrup

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), a highly processed sweetener made from corn, was introduced to the American market in 1975.  Food and beverage manufacturers began switching their sweeteners from sucrose (table sugar) to corn syrup when they discovered that HFCS was far cheaper to make and also about 20 times sweeter than table sugar. It was expected that less sweetener would be needed per product, but unfortunately the amount of sweetener used has steadily risen.

Since the use of HFCS, there has been a steady incline in the incidence of obesity (particularly childhood obesity), adult-onset diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer:

  • Glucose in other sugars is used by your body, and is converted to blood glucose, whereas the fructose from HFCS is a relatively unregulated source of fuel that your liver converts to fat and cholesterol.
  • Consumption of HFCS in high amounts can cause scarring and hardening of the liver, which can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure and liver cancer.
  • HFCS breaks down into a variety of waste products that are damaging to your body, one of which is uric acid. Over time, elevated uric acid drives up your blood pressure, increasing your risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • HFCS increases your insulin level, which causes you to store fat and overeat (largely due to its addictive quality and the suppression of appetite-controlling hormones)—a major cause of obesity, insulin resistance and the development of Type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes.
  • HFCS is almost certainly made from genetically modified corn and processed with genetically modified enzymes, linked to an array of heath problems from food allergies to cancer.

Common Food Mistakes

Food mistake #1:  You reach for multigrain bread or cereal

Foods labeled 7-grain or multigrain may seem like the healthiest choices—especially with new findings showing that a diet rich in whole grains protects against heart disease, cancer, and other ills.  Studies show documented lower rates of heart disease and stroke among whole grain eaters.  Experts don’t know all the reasons behind the benefits, but they do know that intact grains are rich in fiber and nutrients—including vitamin E, B vitamins, and magnesium—that are stripped away when grains are refined into flour.  Unfortunately, many foods are only posing as rich in whole grains.  When you take a closer look at the labels, you may find there’s not a single whole grain in them.

The reason:

Labels can claim that products contain grains even if they’re highly processed and stripped of most of their nutrients and all of their fiber. White flour is made from grain after all……

Smarter move:

Learn the lingo of food claims.  For example, bread that’s 100% whole grain means just that—it contains no refined flour; cereal that’s made with whole grain may have a little or a lot; crackers labeled multigrain may not contain whole grains at all.  To be sure you’re getting the grains you want, check the ingredients panel.  Whole grains should be the first or second ingredient listed.  Luckily, finding whole grain products is easier now that manufacturers supplying at least 16 g of whole grains per serving (considered an excellent source) are stamping their packaging with the Whole Grains Council’s Logo.

Food mistake #2:  You buy bottled water “fortified” with vitamins

It’s a measure of how health conscious we’ve become that water is now fortified with nutrients and even medicinal herbs.  Unfortunately, many are bloated with unnecessary calories.  The label of one leading brand, for example, reports that it supplies half the daily requirement for some nutrients.  But to get that amount, you have to drink the whole bottle, which contains 125 calories.  And for that you just get 6 of the 40+ essential nutrients provided by most supplements.  And, an entire bottle supplies no more vitamin C than you’d get from eating 2 strawberries.

Smarter move:

Drink plain, refreshing, calorie-free water when you’re thirsty—and take a whole food-based multivitamin daily to make sure you get balanced levels of essential vitamins and minerals.

Food mistake #3:  You choose veggie chips over potato chips

Dozens of munchies are now made from carrots, spinach, kale, and even exotic tropical vegetables.  But scrutinize their ingredients and you’ll find that vegetable coloring is all most of them have in common with produce.  In fact, the label reveals that vegetables are at the bottom of the list in most cases (that means they contribute less, by weight, than ingredients at the top of the list, like oil).  Also, many of these seemingly healthful snacks are loaded with calories and hydrogenated fats.

Smarter move:

When you must have chips, look for brands with vegetables at the top of the ingredient list (Terra chips are a good choice).  A tip-off to a snack’s healthfulness is their fiber content (3 g for example is not bad for a snack food).  However, they’re still loaded with calories.  If you’re counting calories, baked chips are a better choice.  An even healthier alternative would be a handful of nuts, loaded with fiber, healthy oils, vitamins and minerals; they’ll even satisfy your urge to nibble.  And, if you want to be truly virtuous, go for the real thing—raw veggies.

The Importance of Chewing Your Food

Healthy digestion and nutrient absorption begins with the simple act of chewing your food. When you chew your food properly, your body releases digestive enzymes in the stomach that help to break down food so that your body can convert it into energy. When food isn’t digested properly, you could suffer from digestive issues such as indigestion, heartburn, constipation, headache and low energy.

Why is Chewing Your Food So Important?

The physical process of chewing food in your mouth helps to break down larger particles of food into smaller particles.  This helps to reduce stress on the esophagus and helps the stomach metabolize your food.  When you chew each mouthful properly, you also release a lot of saliva, which contains digestive enzymes.  As you release these enzymes into the throat and stomach, you further improve the digestive process.  Throughout the chewing process, the body undergoes several processes that trigger digestion.  Digestion is one of the most energy-consuming processes of the body, so it’s essential that you help your body along by doing your part!  It is especially important that processed foods are avoided by children and older adults, as they require little or no chewing—for example, eat small pieces of apple instead of applesauce.

Other Reasons to Chew Your Food Properly

  • Reduce the risk of bacterial overgrowth – food particles that aren’t broken down properly can cause bacterial overgrowth in the colon which leads to indigestion, bloating and constipation
  • Helping food move through the digestive tract – chewing your food sends messages to the gastrointestinal system that food is on its way.  This triggers hydrochloric acid production which helps speed up the digestive process.
  • Relaxes the lower stomach – your lower stomach needs to relax before food can be channeled to the intestines. Releasing saliva helps to relax the lower stomach and also speeds up the digestive process.

How Many Times Should You Chew Your Food?

The number of times you chew really depends on the type of food you consume.  Soft fruits and vegetables will break down more easily than chicken or steak, so you will need to make sure you chew your food as thoroughly as possible.  According to the experts at Ohio State University, you should chew softer foods 5-10 times, and more dense foods (meats/vegetables) up to 30 times before swallowing.

Other Healthy Eating Tips

In addition to chewing your food completely, there are several other ways to improve digestion and reduce the risk of constipation and bloating.  You can:

Avoid drinking water or beverages while eating.  Too much liquid in the stomach will slow down digestion.  However, you can drink up 20-30 minutes before or after your meal to avoid dehydration the rest of the day.

Concentrate on the meal when eating:  Avoid distractions such as television or eating on the run so that you are calm and focused during the meal.  This also makes for a more enjoyable meal.

Make sure you’re swallowing the tiniest pieces possible.  If you can still feel parts of the food in your mouth, you haven’t chewed it enough.

Aspartame and Weight Gain

Low-calorie artificial sweeteners were originally marketed primarily to diabetics and dieters, but now you find them in a variety of processed foodstuffs and snacks that are not specifically aimed at this target market.  But do these zero- or low-calorie products really help you lose weight and/or keep it off?

Well, the research and the epidemiologic data suggest the opposite is true, and that artificial sweeteners such as aspartame tend to lead to weight gain.  One reason for aspartame’s potential to cause weight gain is because phenylalanine and aspartic acid – the two amino acids that make up 90 percent of aspartame — are known to rapidly stimulate the release of insulin and leptin; two hormones that are intricately involved with satiety and fat storage. Insulin and leptin are also the primary hormones that regulate your metabolism.

So although you’re not ingesting calories in the form of sugar, aspartame can still raise your insulin and leptin levels.

Elevated insulin and leptin levels, in turn, are two of the driving forces behind obesity, diabetes, and a number of our current chronic disease epidemics.

Over time, if your body is exposed to too much leptin, it will become resistant to it, just as your body can become resistant to insulin, and once that happens, your body can no longer “hear” the hormonal messages instructing your body to stop eating, burn fat, and maintain good sensitivity to sweet tastes in your taste buds.

What happens then?

You remain hungry; you crave sweets, and your body stores more fat.

Leptin-resistance also causes an increase in visceral fat (belly fat), sending you on a vicious cycle of hunger, fat storage and an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and more.