High Protein Diets for Young Athletes: Fact or Fiction?

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Probably the most common question I get asked during my presentations on sports nutrition for young athletes is…”doesn’t my kid need a high protein diet so he can bulk up, gain weight and get stronger?” Well, at one time it was believed that muscle-building exercises in athletes greatly increased dietary protein needs. This idea has led to a multi million dollar industry selling high-protein meals, bars and drinks marketed to athletes. Here some of the most frequently asked questions regarding high protein diets and young athletes:

1. How much protein do young athletes need?

If you are the type that likes numbers, the recommendation for protein requirement for young athletes is approximately 1.0-1.4 grams per kilogram per day, which is slightly above non-athletic counterparts. What this means is that your young athlete does require a little extra protein in their diet to sustain growth and development, muscle building and repair, as well as fueling intense exercise. However, this requirement translates to a mere 6 ounces of protein per day, and the average American child/adolescent consumes way more than this on a daily basis. Every day, young athletes should consume 55%-60% of their calories from carbohydrates, 15-20% from protein, and the rest from healthy fats (nutrients work best as a team!).

2. What are the best sources of dietary protein?

The richest sources of protein are lean meats such as chicken, turkey, lean beef, fish, eggs, dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt), beans, lentils, nuts.

3. Will eating extra protein make my young athlete stronger?

While it may seem sensible that “more is better” when it comes to protein, in fact, it’s a myth. Studies have repeatedly shown that consuming extra protein will produce no further gain in strength, muscle mass or size. The reason for this is simple; young athletes need anabolic hormones (ie testosterone) and physical training in order to stimulate protein synthesis and in turn increase muscle mass.

4. What are some of the side effects or consequences of consuming too much protein?

High protein-low carb diets are never recommended for young athletes. Too much protein will invariably cause problems. Since we can’t “store” extra protein to use later, the body will have to spend a significant amount of energy processing it, using up energy and water, two important resources for athletes. Too much protein will cause nausea, loss of appetite, diarrhea and can even stress the liver and kidneys.

5. Is the timing of protein intake important?

YES! This we can pay attention to; it is just as important as the amount. Studies have sown that athletes recover faster when they eat some protein (along with carbohydrates to replenish glycogen and rebuild muscle) within 30 minutes of exercise. Aim for 10-20 grams of protein as part of post recovery snack. The ideal ratio for this post recovery snack is between 3:1 and 5:1carbs:protein. Examples of snacks which contain this ratio are chocolate milk, fruit yogurt, milk + a banana, milk + granola, smoothies, cheese sandwich or nuts and dried fruit.

6. Could protein supplements/powders benefit my young athlete?

There has been great hype created around protein powders and their importance for athletes. However, the push for these supplements comes from marketers who play off the athlete’s desire to be competitive. They are for the most part unnecessary for young athletes. While we have established that young athletes have a slightly increased protein requirement, they should be able to easily obtain their protein from food rather than supplements. Most protein powders are not regulated, and they may contain artificial sweeteners and chemicals that they are just better off without. And they’re expensive!

7. What are some strategies for safe weight gain and increasing muscle mass especially for adolescent athletes?

There are three key components: nutrition and calories, resistance training and rest. The American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness Policy Statement (2008) addresses this particular issue. They establish that exercises focusing on core strength are encouraged for the pre-adolescent athletes, and only after puberty should they consider adding muscle bulk. In summary:

Nutrition: increase intake by 300-500 calories per day with a little extra protein (no need to go crazy with the protein). To increase calories, do not skip breakfast, aim to eat 5-9 times per day, increase portion size, add nuts, extra sandwich or bowl of cereal before bed, granola bars, breads or muffins. Reasonable options may be “weight supplements,” such as Pediasure/Ensure and Instant Breakfast.

Training:

Muscle growth is accelerated with the onset of puberty (around ages 13-18). Resistance training is key when the goal is to increase muscle mass/size, and can in fact increase muscle weight by up to 15% per year during these years.  A general strengthening program should have an adequate warm up and cool down and address all major muscle groups. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable; it’s important to train with focus and intensity, not just go through the motions. For increase in muscle size: do multiple sets of 8-15 repetitions/set. For increase in power/strength: lift heavier weights and do multiple sets of 4-6 reps/set. Training should always be done under adult supervision by a certified professional.

Rest:

This means a couple of things: strength training for a particular body part should be done on non-consecutive days. Just as important, the body needs to rest in order to rebuild muscle fibers and increase muscle mass.  Adolescents should get between 8-9 hours of sleep per night, so make sure they get their sleep!

Please comment or email me of you have any additional questions, and there will be more to come…my book is underway and hope to have it out by next year!

Next Blog: Organics 101

 

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