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Nutritional Support for Young Soccer Players

Soccer is a high intensity sport which causes the body to consume a lot of energy in order for athletes to perform at their highest levels. This physically demanding sport can cause the body to utilize up to 2000 calories during a competitive 90-minute match, and athletes can require more than 3400 calories per day. Lack of suitable nutrition will impair performance, manifesting as reduced speed, reduced strength, or reduced coordination. Improper nutrition can also impair proper body development of muscle tissue normally gained by exercise. It increases the risk for injury and delays recovery from injury. Appropriate nutrition will focus on not only caloric intake, but also the ingestion of other macronutrients, micronutrients, and hydration.

Macronutrients

Carbohydrates

Although carbohydrates generate the least amount of energy compared to fat and protein, they are the most important for high intensity sports like soccer. They are the primary source of energy for the high levels of muscle activity utilized during soccer. Carbohydrates are the only energy source which can be burned quickly enough to support the energy needs of short, intense bursts of activity, such as sprinting for a ball. Adequate storage of carbohydrates is necessary to support this activity late in a sporting event. Without proper nutrition, these carbohydrate stores are quickly depleted in the first several minutes of competition, and the body isn’t prepared to fully function late in a match. It isn’t just physical fitness which affects late game performance. Without proper nutrition, the body is deprived of its main energy source and can’t function to its potential. Carbohydrates are not only needed for muscle activity. Other areas, like the brain, utilize only carbohydrates for energy and inadequate availability of carbohydrates also leads to impaired focus, concentration, and decision making. Mental mistakes are more likely to occur when the body does not have its proper energy supply. Carbohydrates also are utilized to help support the metabolism of fat, which is used to sustain prolonged activity, such as long distance running.

The ability to provide adequate carbohydrate supply is solely determined by one’s diet. The average person stores about 2000 calories of energy in stored carbohydrate, also known as glycogen. An overnight fast of 8-12 hours, which is typical of many Americans between dinner and breakfast, can reduce this by more than half. A high carbohydrate diet can more than double your carbohydrate stores. The body can store up to 15 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram (2.2 lbs.) of body weight, which means a 40 kg (88 lb.) youth soccer player can store up to 600 grams of carbohydrates which equates to 2400 calories worth of energy. What you intake before, during, and after a match greatly affects the availability of carbohydrates and their ability to support your performance.

Fats

Weight for weight fat contains more than twice the energy of carbohydrate. Fat yields 9 calories per gram of weight. It is very helpful to provide energy for sustained exercise, but cannot be burned quickly enough to provide energy for some activities. Thus, adequate fat stores are also helpful to provide energy for prolonged exercise. Fat is not only needed as an energy source, but also serves as insulation as well as protection (cushioning) for vital organs. Not all fats are created equal. Fats are generally broken up into categories, such as saturated, unsaturated, and also essential fats. An average American diet is roughly 40% fat, of which 15% is saturated. Organizations such as the American Heart Association recommend no more than 10% of your diet should consist of saturated fat, and less is better. Although saturated fats provide the same benefits as other fats, they are associated with an increased risk for heart attack, stroke, and other serious health ailments. On the other hand, unsaturated fat can actually lower someone’s risk for cardiovascular disease. This is true of monounsaturated fat such as olive oil, avocados, pecans, and almonds. The polyunsaturated fats, like sunflower and safflower oils, offer less protection than monounsaturated fats but are still much healthier than saturated fat. Essential fatty acids are a subset of polyunsaturated fats and consist of omega 3, omega 6, and omega 9 fatty acids. The body can make some omega 9 but is incapable of producing its own omega 3 or 6. They have their own protective powers against cardiovascular disease and other health problems. Foods such as walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, avocados, and oily fish like salmon are good sources of essential fat. Cholesterol is a type of fat and despite its bad press is not all bad. High density lipoprotein (HDL) is protective against cardiovascular disease and actually scavenges cholesterol off the walls of the arteries to keep them unclogged. High levels of HDL are helpful, and proper diet and exercise can help elevate HDL levels. Low density lipoprotein (LDL) is the bad cholesterol we often hear about and is responsible for clogging our arteries and contributes to heart attack and stroke risk. Excess intake of fat, especially saturated fat, will increase cholesterol levels, especially LDL, and should be avoided.

Protein

Protein plays a lesser role as an energy source and can yield only slightly more energy than carbohydrate when it is burned. Protein’s main role for exercise is to help build and repair muscle as well as bone, ligaments, and tendons. Protein is also responsible to act as a building block for most of the enzymes used in metabolism. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for the average adult is .83 grams per kilogram (2.2 lbs.) of bodyweight. Some research suggests higher levels of protein intake may be needed for athletes, ranging up to 1.2 grams per kilogram all the way up to 2.0 grams although this is controversial and there may be negative effects for prolonged high levels of protein ingestion. Meat, dairy products, nuts, beans, and eggs are good sources of protein, but some also have higher levels of saturated fat. Good sources of lower fat protein would include poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, beans, and low fat milk.

Micronutrients

Vitamins

There are 13 vitamins which have been identified. Four are fat soluble (vitamins A, D, E, and K) and the rest (B-complex vitamins and vitamin C) are water soluble. There are accepted limits which are necessary for basic health and to avoid certain diseases. There is no known optimal amount and the levels necessary to support athletic competition may be higher. There is currently no validated data to demonstrate the proper amount of vitamin intake for athletes. Nonetheless, proper dietary intake of vitamins is needed to supply the essential amount required for things such as blood clotting, manufacturing red blood cells, development of bone, and proper nerve function. Excessive amounts of vitamins, especially fat soluble vitamins, can also lead to health problems and should be avoided.

Minerals

Minerals make up roughly 4 % of our body’s weight. They are divided into two types: major and trace. Major minerals include sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and phosphorous. Trace elements are ones such as iron, zinc, copper, and selenium. Sodium, commonly referred to as salt, is essential for many bodily functions, but an excess is also harmful and is a contributing factor to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. The typical Western diet consumes more than the recommended amount of sodium, which is currently 1500 mg per day. Potassium and magnesium are necessary for numerous reasons, but also can help to prevent muscle cramping. Excess of these can be harmful, especially for patients with certain heart or kidney problems. Calcium, on the other hand, is typically deficient in the Western diet where we only take in 1/3 to 1/2 of the recommended amount of calcium. Calcium is responsible for bone growth as well as maintaining the strength (density) of the bone. Iron is responsible for building red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout our bodies. Although iron is needed to allow the body to circulate oxygen to muscles and support their activity, it is usually sufficient in one’s diet to prevent the need for supplementation. Females that have started menstruation (having their period) may lose extra blood and become anemic and may have a need to increase their iron intake. This should be discussed with a healthcare provider if an athlete is concerned.

Soccer Diet

The above information hopefully provided some basic information, but now on to the specifics. So what should a youth soccer player eat? What is the right overall balance? What should they eat normally, on a match day, after a match? Proper nutrition will not make a poor player into a great one but can help any player to perform to their potential. What more can you really ask?

A typical Western diet contains far too much fat and too much carbohydrate with a high glycemic index (more on that later). The average Western diet is about 45% carbohydrate, 40% fat, and 15% protein. Ideally, a soccer player should ingest about 60% carbohydrate, 25% fat, and 15% protein. Carbohydrates ideally should consist of things like fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains like brown rice and pasta, and high fiber cereal. Fats should focus on the “good fats” such as oily fish like salmon, avocados, raw nuts, and olive oil. The choice of which protein to consume should focus on quality, but ideally also take into account ones that are also low in fat, such as poultry, fish, eggs, and low fat milk. Egg is the only complete protein source and contains every amino acid, including ones that the body cannot produce on its own.

Not all carbohydrates are digested and utilized at the same rate. This is placed on a numeric scale called the Glycemic Index. Foods with a high glycemic index are rapidly absorbed and cause a large release of insulin to control the spike of blood sugar that ensues. This can actually cause a low level of blood sugar following the spike. Foods with a low glycemic index are more slowly absorbed and avoid the high spike in blood sugar and the negative effects afterwards. This concept affects what you eat and drink on “game day” since it affects the amount of carbohydrate that is available to your body during your soccer match. Pre-game eating is meant to maximize your stored carbohydrates (which is in the form of glycogen in your muscles and liver) so it is available for exercise. This means trying to avoid any high glycemic index carbohydrates on game day, especially within 1 hour of the match. Lower glycemic index foods will allow for sustained release and increase the amount of carbohydrate available during exercise. After the match, it is necessary to replenish the 200 grams or more of carbohydrate which were utilized. This should be done with high carbohydrate meals, ideally starting within 2 hours of the match. It can take up to 24 hours to replenish these stores. On days where there are multiple matches, like a tournament, it is vital to replenish carbohydrates quickly and the best sources are bananas, dried fruit, and pasta. Carbohydrate drinks can be helpful in small amounts if taken 5-15 minutes before a match or at halftime to help boost or replenish carbohydrate availability, but when taken earlier often cause hyperglycemia and insulin release which actually decreases the available carbohydrates during a match.

Hydration

Another key aspect to nutrition is hydration. Hydration is needed to provide the necessary fluids to control body temperature through sweating. It also provides the water which is essential to metabolism. A lack of water interferes with metabolism and even if energy stores are present, they aren’t properly utilized and exhaustion develops prematurely. Soccer players can lose 2-3 liters of sweat during a match, especially under hot and humid conditions. Performance can be affected by even a 1-2% of your body fluid. Thirst is a poor indicator of dehydration and often occurs late. Players can’t wait until they get thirsty to start drinking fluids. Hydration starts hours before a match. Players should consume at least 500 ml (16 oz.) during the day before the match. They should consume 200-400 ml (7-14 oz.) of cool water immediately before a match. They should consume another 300-500 ml (10-17 oz.) during halftime. Cold temperature may feel refreshing but actually impairs absorption and should be avoided. Cool or even room temperature water is more rapidly absorbed and hydrates faster. Carbohydrate drinks, like Gatorade, Powerade, or Body Armor, can be helpful for hydration and to provide some rapidly available carbohydrates during a match. However, too much electrolyte or carbohydrate in the beverage will impede the absorption of water into the body. The high amount of sugar in most sports drinks can also decrease available carbohydrates by inducing the insulin surge. Sports drinks should contain less than 6-8% carbohydrates and only small amounts of electrolytes. Not all sports drinks are created equal. Many contain too much sugar, which enhances the flavor and taste, but isn’t helpful for maximizing nutrition and performance. Electrolyte repletion (especially sodium) is typically only necessary for prolonged athletic events with high amounts of fluid loss from sweating, and this is relatively uncommon for soccer. After a match, both carbohydrates and water needs to be replenished. If multiple matches are scheduled in the same day, this is where carbohydrate drinks can be helpful to provide both, but again trying to avoid simple sugars (like candy or soda). It is also very important to avoid caffeinated beverages, such as soda and coffee, as these actually cause a loss of fluids through increased urination from caffeine and do not help with hydration. Low fat chocolate milk has also been found to be particularly helpful for post-match hydration. Chocolate milk’s ideal amount of carbohydrate and protein allows for optimal absorption of its nutrients. It has superior deposition of energy, in the form of glycogen, into muscle tissue and also enhances muscle recovery compared to sports drinks. Thus, after a prolonged bout of exercise, like a high level sporting match, a serving of chocolate milk may be the ideal solution to help with restoring the body to its full capacity.

Key Points

  • Soccer player’s diet should include 60% carbohydrates, 25% fats, and 15% protein
  • Carbohydrates should be low glycemic index foods such as fresh fruits, whole grains, pasta, and brown rice
  • Protein should come from lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, and nuts
  • Fats should be unsaturated like avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil
  • Vitamins and minerals rarely needs supplementation with a well-balanced diet
  • Pre-game meals should occur at least 3 hours before kickoff and consist mainly of low glycemic index foods such as complex carbohydrates like pasta or brown rice and fresh fruits
  • No food should be ingested within 1 hour of a match, though hydration should be continued. Only exception is possibly small amount of sports drink 5 minutes before kickoff.
  • Hydration begins hours before the competition and additional fluids should be ingested immediately before the match, during halftime, and immediately following the match.
  • Hydration should not include caffeinated beverages like soda or ones with high levels of sugar. Water is best but lower carbohydrate sports drinks can be helpful immediately before a match and during the match in small quantities.
  • Post-match replenishment of carbohydrates should include up to 200 grams of carbohydrates and occur within 2 hours of the match completion.

Meal Planning Examples

Practice Day

  • Breakfast – turkey sausage, eggs, potatoes or toast, fruit, skim milk
  • Lunch – turkey / Swiss cheese sandwich, fruit, yogurt, water
  • After school snack – peanut butter / jelly sandwich
  • Dinner (after practice) – pasta, salad, fruit, bread, skim milk

Match Day (post-school game)

  • Breakfast – eggs, turkey bacon, pancakes w/ real maple syrup, fruit, skim milk
  • Lunch – chicken / cheddar cheese sandwich, baked chips, cut up veggies, water
  • Half time snack – bagel w/ peanut butter or sports bar, sports drink or water
  • After game snack – low fat chocolate milk
  • Dinner – Grilled chicken or fish, brown rice, vegetables, skim milk

Tournament Day (mid-morning and mid-afternoon games)

  • Breakfast – low sugar cereal, fruit, bagel w/ cream cheese, skim milk
  • Half-time snack – peanut butter / jelly sandwich or sports bar, sports drink or water
  • After game snack – low fat chocolate milk
  • Lunch – Grilled chicken, pasta, fruit, water
  • Half-time snack – orange slices or sports bar, sports drink or water
  • Dinner – Lean beef, baked potato, salad, bread, skim milk