Written By: Brett Singer MS, RD, CSSD, LD with Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute
Summary: Student athletes can find it difficult to keep up with energy needs at times due to demanding schedules, appetite or other challenges. This blog will highlight some simple ideas athletes can incorporate into their routine to boost energy intake.
The daily schedule for young athletes can make it challenging to keep up with nutrition needs. Between school, transportation, and practices, opportunities for feedings can be limited. Throw in new COVID-19 related regulations on top of everything else, and it’s easy to see why kids may fall short of energy needs at times. Despite all of this, with some creativity and planning, athletes can utilize a variety of potential solutions to meet energy demands.
What are energy needs and why do athletes struggle to meet them?
All humans require energy to survive. Calories are a unit of energy – and often we will use the terms interchangeably. Energy needs will vary dramatically from person to person. In addition to the energy needs required for normal human processes, such as your heart beating or the regulation of core temperature, humans expend additional energy when exercising. During a week in which an athlete may practice and play multiple games, their energy needs may go up substantially. If too little food is consumed, their energy expenditure will exceed their energy intake, which can result not only in poor performance but also a variety of other health issues, particularly when occurring chronically.
When activity levels are high, athletes can fall short of energy needs for a variety of reasons. As noted above, time may be a limitation. If an athlete is busy in class, practicing, or sleeping, there are only so many opportunities to eat. Appetite can also play a significant role. Despite their best effort, athletes may not feel hungry enough to keep up with energy needs. Lastly, a lack of preparation may also be playing a role in falling short of energy needs. Athletes should not make a habit out of forgetting to consume meals or snacks.
What are some solutions?
Try to be sure that you are consuming at least 3 meals a day. From there, look for large gaps in time between your meals to identify where there may be opportunities to fit snacks in. If appetite is holding you back, consider which foods may pack plenty of energy in a small portion. This means, find foods you only have to consume a small portion to get plenty of calories. As an example, whereas snacking on a cup of broccoli may only provide 30 calories, a cup of walnuts will provide over 500 calories. Some foods are more energy-dense than others, by consuming these, you can keep calorie intake high while not feeling quite so full. Lastly – while it is often tempting for athletes to snack on things like chips, cookies, or fast food, that may not always be the best option for health and performance. We encourage our athletes that all foods can fit, but athletes should do their best to include foods which contain plenty of health and performance benefits beyond just the calories it provides. While chips may contain plenty of energy, it may not provide the same level of fiber, magnesium, or protein as pumpkin seeds as an example.
What are some examples of high-energy snacks?
1. Liquids: Liquids can feel a little less filling and are an easily transportable source of energy for athletes.
- Milks: Try 2% or whole milk as a snack or in addition to a normal snack. Remember there are shelf stable options out there you can find at the grocery which are easy to carry around school.
- Juices: Can pack a variety of vitamins and minerals while also containing plenty of energy.
- Smoothies: Great way to include plenty of color and energy into one compact beverage. Use juice or milk as the base in addition to the fruits and veggies included.
- Kefir: Flavored kefir tastes just like a smoothie. You can find it in the dairy/yogurt aisle at most groceries.
- Sports Drinks: While it’s best to stick with water in most scenarios during the day, athletes who are practicing multiple hours may benefit from drinking a sports drink during practice or games. Sports drinks can support performance while also helping keep up with total calorie needs for a day.
2. Fats: Fat contains more calories per gram than either protein or carbohydrate. Fat sources can pack plenty of energy into a small portion in addition to the numerous other benefits each of those foods may provide.
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, pistachios, walnuts, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds… the list goes on and on. Nuts and seeds are a tremendous source of fat, protein, fiber, and numerous micronutrients. Whether by itself or in addition to other items as part of a snack, nuts and snacks are a great option to include.
- Nut and seed butters: Same as above. Spread it on bread, crackers, fruits or as part of a smoothie.
- Trail Mix: A mix of nuts, seeds, dried fruit, cereals, and chocolate. Find options at the grocery, or build your own!
- Avocado: Avocado can be a snack on its own, or added to other items like a bagel or whole-grain tortilla.
- Cheese and other full-fat dairy: Whether cheese and crackers or full-fat yogurt or milk, dairy sources are a great snack option to keep up with energy demands. Don’t forget chocolate milk!
3. Dried and Semi-solid fruits: In addition to fresh fruit, don’t be afraid to try out dried fruits or semi-solid options. These are small, compact, and easily transportable sources of carbohydrates.
- Dried fruit: In addition to more common options such as raisins, try out options such as dates, apricots, mangos, cherries and any number of other options available within the grocery.
- Semi-solid: Apple sauce is a great option that you can even find in squeezable packages. In addition to this, there are other forms of semi-solid fruits that may feel slightly less filling to consume.
Build Your Own: There are lots of granola bars on the market nowadays including grains, nuts and seeds. While those are one option, you can also build your own. There are plenty of no-bake energy bar/bite recipes you can find online and try out. They’ll typically include oats, dried fruits, nuts/seeds, and chocolate!
Have questions or want to set up a virtual nutrition consultation? Please contact Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute Sports Dietitian Brett Singer at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on twitter @bsinger10 or on Instagram @bsinger_sportsrd.