Key nutrients for young athletes: Carbs and proteins

Key nutrients for young athletes: Carbs and proteins


Carbohydrates are the most efficient fuel for athletic performance. They are the preferred fuel for working muscles. The energy from carbohydrate sources is converted to glucose which is then released in the working muscle up to three times faster than energy from fat sources. When glucose is not used immediately for energy, it is stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver. Athletes draw on these stores during exercise. Once the stored glycogen is used up (within approximately 2 hours), the athlete cannot function at high intensity and his or her performance declines. Eating more carbohydrate replenishes the stored glycogen and improves endurance. So a diet rich in complex carbohydrates is the key to performance and endurance. 

Good pre-event foods are those "familiar" to the athlete.  Familiar foods are those that are "tried and true" and therefore have less chance a causing gastrointestinal distress.  These can be eaten the day before or up to 1 and ½ to 2 hours before an event.   Good choices include bagels, English muffins, pasta, rice, bread, pita bread, fresh fruit, granola bars, pretzels, higher carbohydrate energy bars, oatmeal, grits, potatoes, corn, beans and peas.  

Carb loading is strategy that increases the amount of fuel stored in your muscles to improve your athletic performance – it is helpful if you're an endurance athlete such as a marathon runner, swimmer or cyclist, or for any continuous athletic event lasting 90 minutes or more.  Carb loading involves increasing carbohydrate intake to about 70 percent of your daily calories three to four days before the event, while also cutting back on foods higher in fat.  Other athletes generally don't need carbohydrate loading. It's enough to eat a diet that gets half or more of its calories from carbohydrates.  


After the event  – Muscles are most receptive to storing glycogen during the first two to three hours following intense exercise. Eating or drinking carbohydrate immediately after the exercise or competition and then again at two-hour intervals improves the replacement of glycogen in the muscles. Drinking a high-carbohydrate beverage immediately after the workout and then eating a high carbohydrate meal within the next two hours is recommended.  

Did you know that chocolate milk is an ideal "post-event" recovery food? Chocolate milk offers fluids (to replace water lost in sweat), electrolytes (to replace the sodium, potassium, and calcium lost in sweat), protein (to repair and build muscles), carbohydrate (to refuel muscles).  Many running events are now providing chocolate milk in the post-race goodie bag!


Protein is an essential part of an adolescent athlete's diet as it helps build, maintain, and repair muscles and other body tissues. However, eating large amounts of protein won't make someone stronger or build bigger muscles. And excess protein can have negative consequences, such a dehydration or weight gain.  

Athletes should be cautioned that the calories from excessive protein will be stored as fat, not as muscle.  Protein supplements claim to increase muscle mass, speed, endurance, and fat loss, and/or decrease recovery time. These claims lack scientific evidence and are unreliable.  A healthy athlete can get the protein and other nutrients he or she needs from foods without taking supplements.  

The popular grain-free, dairy-free diets such as the Paleo diet can be actually lessen athletic performance. They are high in protein and fat, and do not provide adequate nutrients, such as calcium and vitamin D, iron (as iron-fortified grains are not allowed) and fiber, or carbohydrate to fuel muscles adequately.  

Protein is found in meats (beef, pork, poultry, fish), nuts, beans, eggs, peanut or other nut butters, and dairy products. A good reference for an athlete's healthy plate is based on the MyPlate model, which promotes three-quarters of your plate being carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, grains or starches) and one-quarter of your plate being protein.

a bowl of spaghetti, a carbohydrate needed for young athletes