Like carbohydrates, protein-rich foods are an important part of a youth sports diet. The best diet contains adequate, but not excessive, protein to build and repair muscle tissue, grow hair and fingernails, produce hormones, boost the immune system, and replace red blood cells. Young athletes have an increased need for protein due to the demands of their sports and the fact they are growing, most tend to consume more than they require.
Research has yet to define the exact protein requirements of sports-active people because individual needs vary. Exercise scientists have found that athletes need slightly more protein than other people do to repair the small amounts of muscle damage that occur with training, to provide energy (in very small amounts) for exercise (important for endurance athletes and those engage in intense exercise, where the protein can provide energy if muscle glycogen stores are depleted and blood glucose levels are low), and to support the building of new muscle tissue (essential for growing teenage athletes for both growth and muscular development).
In general, pinpointing exact protein requirements is almost a moot point because many athletes eat more protein than they actually need just in their regular diet.
When it comes to protein intake, athletes seem to fall into two categories. First are those who eat too much - the bodybuilders, weightlifters, and football players who can't seem to get enough of the stuff. Those in the second group eat too little - the runners, dancers, swimmers, gymnasts, skaters, and other weight-conscious athletes who never touch meat and trade most protein calories for more salads and vegetables. Individuals in either group can perform poorly because of dietary imbalances.
While the demands sports place on a young athlete's growing bodies increase the need for protein, most kids tend to consume more than the recommended amount and foods, like cheese omelets and fast food burgers, that are high in saturated fats, or they equate healthy eating with low-calorie protein choices, like skinless chicken breast, missing out on important carbs and healthy fats. The answer: a low-fat or vegetarian diet in which beef are replaced with beans, or other appropriate substitutes, such as extra firm tofu. Remember, though, that a more generous portion (more calories) of beans and other forms of plant protein will be needed to equal the protein from animal sources.
© Nancy Clark
Nancy Clark is MomsTeam's sports nutrition expert, a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics and best-selling author. She counsels active people in her practice at Healthworks, a fitness center in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. Her new book, Food Guide for Soccer: Tips & Recipes from the Pros and other books, including her Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for new runners, marathoners, and cyclists are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com and www.sportsnutritionworkshop.com.
Sources: Food Guide for Soccer-Tips & Recipes From the Pros, with Women's Professional Soccer, by Gloria Averbuch and Nancy Clark, RD. and Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook (4th ed. 2008 Human Kinetics).
Revised November 15, 2011