Whether it’s grabbing fruits and nuts or cheese sticks and protein bars before leaving the house or planning well-thought-out meals for the day, proper nutrition for high school athletes depends on the availability of healthier options, cost, and meal planning.
Olympic senior Kiki Mitchell, a multi-sport athlete for the Trojans, Olivia Wikstrom, a basketball player at Bainbridge and North Kitsap state tennis champion Danya Wallis all agree nutrition is important as an athlete, and it’s something they pay attention to in and out of season.
“I play sports year round, so I put a significant emphasis on it,” Wikstrom said. “It’s essential for me to eat well in order to give myself the best chance to perform well in high-level competition and not get rundown. I eat lots of protein and drink lots of water before games to ensure I’m well hydrated and don’t lose energy.”
Mitchell said the hardest part for her is meal planning or prepping because it’s difficult to follow through when she’s running from school to practices or games than home for homework.
“Buying healthier food is always more expensive, but there’s other outlets as in just portioning and picking healthier things to eat,” Mitchell said.
Wallis, the three-time defending 2A champion, said she chooses to focus on eating healthy because it makes her feel better overall, not just because she plays tennis year round.
“There is definitely a difference in my performance when I eat lots of fruits and vegetables and drink lots of water,” Wallis said, “especially staying away from junk food.”
In a comparative study “Sports Nutrition Knowledge, Behaviors and Beliefs of High School Soccer Players” the authors found that athletes’ knowledge was limited based on their sex, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.
Melinda Manore, Megan Patton-Lopez, and SiewSun Wong, all of Oregon State University, had high school soccer players complete questionnaires on their demographic (health history) and sports nutrition. The study, published in April 2017 at pubmed.gov, showed overall that 45 percent stated their nutrient requirements were different from their non-athlete peers.
The teens know proper nutrition is vital for their health and success in their chosen sports — that’s the good news.
“Nutrition is so, so important,” Mitchell said. “During the sports season, if I’m having burgers and fries every day and soda here and there, my performance and energy level are going to decrease compared to if I’m continuously drinking water and snacking on nuts and fruits throughout the day and eating healthier food.”
Bainbridge’s Wikstrom, a sophomore, said by placing emphasis on what she eats she’s able to compete at a high level.
“The times when I eat poorly or not enough, I’ve gotten tired and run down by the fourth quarter,” Wikstrom said.
There is bad news. Lack of cheaper, healthier options and their schedules are the most significant deterrents they face.
“Especially on away games,” Wikstrom said.
Bainbridge competes in the Metro League and commutes to games by ferry to Seattle. It can get tricky if players don’t have food with them because healthier options are limited.
“We leave for school in the morning and then catch the ferry right after school and don’t get back until late,” Wikstrom said. “It’s hard to pack enough quality food, and after the game when we’re waiting for the ferry, there’s not a lot of good healthy options.”
It’s frustrating when sodas and junk food are only one dollar while salads and fruits are three to five dollars, Mitchell said.
It’s not to say athletes don’t give in to cravings.
“I love sweets, so it’s hard to keep them out,” Wallis said. “I love chocolate, and I will just eat it, there is nothing wrong with cheat days. And I don’t plan it. It’s more of a random craving to just want it right there and then.”
The OSU study also showed that “teenage athletes, especially females and Latinos, would benefit from sports nutrition education that enhances food selection skills for health and sports performance.”
Here’s where it can be tricky.
Laura Christine Hopkins and Carolyn Woods Gunther, of Ohio State University, co-authored a historical review of changes in nutrition standards of USDA Child Meal Programs (CMP) in December 2015. The review’s objective was to determine if the CMPs were meeting the ever-changing world of nutrition standards. It also included meals served in the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and showed the meals were high in carbohydrates and protein content but lacked vegetable servings, the authors said.
Hopkins and Gunther concluded there is a critical need for policy change. The last significant change was done under the Obama administration in 2010 and was critically derided by students, schools, and nutritionists.
Continued studies and education should be made available to student-athletes as well as common-sense practices of learning how to meal plan, and eating on a budget.
And for most 2018 athletes, eating healthy is a year-round emphasis.