Susan Horowitz

Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017

Poor nutrition can hurt young athletes as they grow

PHOENIX – When Christina Barth was a dietitian for an elite youth soccer team, she encountered many different eating patterns among, what she described as, the “mini-professional athletes”.

“I saw athletes that ate terribly, but they still performed pretty well. But I would always tell them, “Just imagine if you were eating really well how much better you’d be able to perform’,” said the registered dietitian who specializes in child nutrition.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , one in five school-aged children are obese, a number that has tripled since the 1970s. Children who compete in youth sports are more likely to be at a healthy weight, according to a 2012 study done by the American Academy of Pediatrics .

Kavita Bernstein, the Health Program Specialist for First Things First, said the organization is on a mission to support the health and wellness of children from an early age. Bernstein said one of the goals of the organization is to ensure children learn how to enjoy exercise.

“How can we make physical activity not a chore, but part of a fun thing to do as part of our day,” she said.

Barth said many young athletes are able to perform well despite their unhealthy diets, but that is not a sustainable plan for the future.

“I think over time people or kids’ unhealthy habits will catch up to them,” she said.

Barth believes a strong foundation of both nutrition and exercise is key in keeping children healthy. She said she strives to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables for her young clients.

“The average intake of fruits and vegetables for kids is probably 1 -2 servings a day,” Barth said. “So usually what I’ll do is meet the child where they’re at, and double (the serving) they’re currently doing.”

According to a study done by the Canadian Paediatric Society , young athletes must ensure they are taking in the proper amount of macronutrients, micronutrients and fluids to maintain performance and energy, as well as to activate muscle recovery. The study states that lack of adequate nutrition can result in “short stature, delayed puberty, menstrual dysfunction, loss of muscle mass and increased susceptibility for fatigue, injury or illness.”

Sarah Shirley, a 17-year-old competitive gymnast at Gold Medal Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona, believes nutrition is vital to helping her remain at the top of her game. She said before she learned about nutrition, she was struggling to maintain energy during long practices. Shirley plans to keep up her nutrition regimen as she heads to college.

“I’m going to Western Michigan University on a full gymnastics scholarship.”

Shirley says that working with Gold Medal Gymnastics’ sports nutritionist led to her changing her eating habits and believes it has allowed her to become a more successful athlete. However Shirley said that she does not see all of her fellow gymnasts thinking about nutrition.

“I just wish I could help them be better,” said the recent high school graduate.

Recent high school graduate, Sarah Shirley, discusses moving on to college athletics and credits her nutrition routine as a key to her success. (Photo by Devin Conley/ Cronkite News)

Companies have recognized an opportunity in the marketplace, and have begun manufacturing nutritional products that market to young performance athletes, with promises like “faster recovery” and “immune boosting” attached.

Amanda Borden, Gold Medal Gym owner & 1996 Olympic Gold Medalist, recommends her athletes use nutritional shake products to stay fueled, for what Borden said can be up to 25 hours a week of physical activity. Borden has children of her own who are also involved with gymnastics. She prefers to fuel her athletes with whole, real foods like fruits, vegetables and protein, but supplemental shakes act as a safety net to ensure they are getting enough nutrients.

“For me as a parent, I feel like I want my kids’ bodies to be fueled with great food, which would be that whole food diet,” she said. “That’s pretty much impossible with my lifestyle.”

Barth, said parents should be careful giving supplements to young athletes because supplements are not a foolproof solution.

“Now, with supplements, they’re not FDA regulated, so you really don’t what you’re exactly getting in that supplement. So with all supplements, I always encourage my athletes to be careful,” she said, adding “I always believe in choosing foods first, then supplements second.”

Barth pushes her young, active clients to eat enough fresh fruits and vegetables, but she believes some level of balance is key.

“My whole thing is all foods can fit in a healthy balanced diet, so even fast foods,” she said.

The Desert Elite Girls Soccer club team hosted a fundraiser at Whataburger in Scottsdale to help the team raise money for a fitness program that will prepare the girls to compete at a higher level.


“You can find healthy foods pretty much anywhere,” said team mom Tiffany Dirks. “Whataburger has salads, burgers full of protein, get it with lettuce and tomato, complete meal.”

Dirks said fueling her young athlete is all about balance but does think there are a few key principles, like ensuring they get enough water, electrolytes, fruits and vegetables, protein and carbohydrates.

“Well I am huge on nutrition,” said Riley Glasco, a 14-year-old Desert Elite player. “I love fruits and vegetables, although I am sort of picky on which ones I like. But I also hydrate a lot.”

Glasco participates in different sports throughout the year, so she is meticulous about her diet, though it is impossible to be perfect all the time.

“It’s not really fun as a kid to be so strict on a healthy food diet that you can’t have a milkshake once in awhile or some fries.”

Glasco’s coach, Michael Varela, said he strives to do his part to give the team a foundation of nutrition knowledge.

“Ultimately our job as coaches, as clubs, as parents and even as players, because some of these girls are going into high school, is you have to make educated decisions on what it is that you want to eat.”

Varela said that his own experience as a child athlete, and 10 years of coaching, helps him mentor his team.

“You have to eat right. And when you physically train you have to know how to refuel your body, and then recovery. Which is also an important part of their education as well. That’s what we educate them on, and that what I do as well for myself.”

Varela isn’t the only coach around the valley tackling the issue of nutrition head on. Football mentor Scott Peters, said he is a big fan of real, whole foods.

Riley Glasco laughs with teammates at the Desert Elite Soccer fundraiser at Whataburger in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo by Devin Conley/ Cronkite News)

“When it comes to supplements, I’m not a big supplement user,” he said. “I believe in, like, eating really nutritious foods: non-GMO foods, non-chemically, none of the preservatives. Eating really whole foods, and it’s hard to do in this day and age because it’s not convenient.”

When speaking to his players about nutrition, Peters said, “the way I’ll tell these guys is ‘you’re a high performance vehicle, you don’t put lousy gasoline in your car’”.

A 2016 American Heart Association study found that 60 percent of calories in the American diet comes from processed foods, and experts strive to decrease that striking statistic.

Registered dietitian Debbie Richardson, who works with people who have battled eating disorders, believes society should not demonize any specific foods to children, but education about healthy diet staples is necessary. Richardson said parents, teachers and coaches have a responsibility to lead by example.

“And then really starting that education piece with kids very early, and having that as part of the school curriculum,” she said. “It seems like a no brainer.”

Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions, which houses the university’s nutrition degree programs, hosts educational programs for adults and children. Chef Kenneth Moody, who operates the school’s Kitchen Café, a non-profit retail kitchen, supervises these programs.

“We’re going to be doing our 5th annual Camp Crave,” Moody said. “It’s a nutritional summer camp for kids, usually around 7 to 12 years old.”

Camp Crave goes out into the community and partners with the Boys & Girls Club to bring kids to the downtown ASU campus. The children play games, exercise and then go through a nutrition lessons. They focus on simple lessons like MyPlate, showing kids what healthy meals and snacks look like.

Moody says that gaining confidence in the kitchen is a great step towards eating healthier, but ultimately thinks that food should be fun and balance is key.

“I just think eating everything in moderation is the way to go,” Moody explains. “I personally wouldn’t want to live the rest of my life without eating ice cream or bread.”