As a strength and conditioning coach, my role often extends far beyond the weight room. One of the many hats I wear daily is that of a nutritionist.
Although it’s usually not included in a strength coach’s job description, educating young athletes on what, when and how much to eat comes with the trade. Because if we don’t do it, who else will set the young’uns straight?
Very few parents can teach their kids the ins and outs of how to eat for athletic performance, muscle gains and/or fat loss. And don’t expect your high school biology teacher to have a grip on nutrition, either. At best, he will simply regurgitate the Food Pyramid from a dusty textbook dating back to 1996.
In any case, that leaves us coaches to pick up the slack.
If you’re looking to lose 5 or 15 pounds of flab, or simply revamp your body composition for a leaner, more muscular look, fixing your diet is the first step in reaching your goal.
These are the five points I consistently harp on with athletes who’re looking to shed that baby fat and add lean muscle.
1. Eat a Quality Protein Source at Every Meal
The first thing I instruct my athletes to get right is to include a quality protein source at every meal.
Granted, low protein intakes are not very typical among young athletes, because every high school male involved in sports already knows that protein “makes your muscles grow, yo.” Unfortunately, that’s about as far as their nutrition knowledge goes.
Still, it never hurts to remind athletes about the importance of this macronutrient. Female athletes, especially, have trouble consuming enough protein and enough total calories to match their daily requirements for maintaining lean muscle mass during a fat loss phase.
For a quality protein source, stick to these three staple foods:
Quark and Greek yogurt are also solid options if you can tolerate dairy. On the other hand, while nuts are generally an excellent protein source (not to mention a source for vitamins, minerals and antioxidants), they also contain a ton of calories and are easy to overeat. For that reason, limit nuts in your diet if fat loss is your primary focus.
But what about protein shakes?
Although they’re by no means necessary if you get enough protein from solid food, drinking a protein shake is a fast and convenient way to get some calories and protein in. Some people have trouble consuming anything solid in the morning and/or right after a training session, so in that case, downing a shake remains a much better choice than avoiding food or force feeding yourself.
2. Limit Carbs
Next on our list of nutritional tweaks comes the reduction of starchy carbs.
Yes, athletes need carbs for performance. However, when you’re chubby to begin with, your body doesn’t handle carbs well. So eating sugary cereal for breakfast or devouring that full plate of pasta at dinner won’t exactly help reduce body fat.
It’s easy to go overboard with your carb consumption. If an athlete comes to me at a body fat percentage well above where I want them to be, they’ll cut out starches for a few weeks (or however long it takes to see visible changes).
Once we get the scale moving down and the athlete starts dropping significant amounts of fat, we’ll slowly start reintroducing carbs back into their diet. At this point, they’re allowed a small amount of any of the following after their gym workout or sports practice:
Other than those select few items, their diet consists mostly of proteins, quality fats, and fruits and vegetables. This leads us straight to the next point.
3. Eat Vegetables or Fruits at Every Meal
When you reduce carbs in your diet, hunger pangs can become an issue. Replacing starches with fruits or vegetables is an easy way to fill your stomach without exceeding your daily caloric intake goals.
Just like you wouldn’t stick to only a handful of exercises to build strength in the weight room, you don’t want to restrict your fruits and vegetables to a select few ordinary choices like apples, bananas, tomatoes and cucumbers.
Each food item has various vitamins and nutrients to offer, so you should take advantage of as many of them as possible.
In case you don’t know where to start, give these goodies a try:
You can find all of them at your local supermarket basically year-round. And they taste pretty awesome, too.
4. Cut Out Sugary Drinks
This should be a no-brainer. But when I look at what young athletes drink these days, it’s clearly not.
A 500 ml bottle of Coke includes over 200 calories. Even worse, if you bother to read the label, that bottle contains around 55 grams of sugar. Those are empty calories you don’t need.
Water should be your number one drink choice on and off the field. Enjoying a cup of coffee or tea, or a glass of milk once in a while, is totally fine, but there’s no replacement for water to keep your body hydrated.
If you currently consume several bottles of soda or energy drinks on a daily basis, nixing them from your diet is the easiest way to reduce your calorie intake. Just be prepared to experience some serious withdrawal cravings for the first week or two when you go cold turkey on sugary drinks. It gets easier past that initial phase, and soon enough, you’ll wonder why you didn’t give them up months ago.
5. Eat Real Foods
If you have already implemented the first four pointers on this list, this last one serves more as a reminder than anything else.
I’m always baffled when parents of 16-year-olds ask me which supplements I would recommend for their son.
My answer? None.
Supplements have a marginal impact on body composition and athletic performance. And without the basics of solid nutritional habits in place, their inclusion in your diet can’t be justified. For the vast majority of teenage athletes, there are many improvements that can be made to their diet which would have a far bigger impact on body composition and performance than simply throwing some supplements into the mix.
So stick to real food. That’s what makes a difference in your performance. What is “real food”? Stuff where you can actually recognize what it’s made of at a glance. You can start by avoiding “ultra-processed” foods as much as possible.
Forget about those overhyped pills and shakes whose real slimming effect trims the contents of your wallet and not your love handles. When it comes to losing body fat, a few tweaks to their diet can go a long way for athletes.
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