“So a Slurpee after a game isn’t recommended anymore?”

This was a witty comment that my brother made on a recent post I shared about the importance of nutritional foundations for student athletes.

My Mom followed his comment with ‘face palm’ emojis.

A Slurpee post match was a common occurrence for us growing up. Knowing what I know now, I might have made different choices, but it was what we did at the time and I learned from it.

His comment got me to thinking though, that perhaps when I speak to the importance of strong nutrition for student athletes, it’s the Slurpees and treats that my fellow parents, past athletes and current student athletes are thinking of. That if we cut out the Slurpees and chips and eat less cake and cookies, then this is enough of a nutritional focus. And while this certainly has long term health benefits for the average person, and would certainly serve our student athletes well, what I am speaking about goes much deeper.

The reality is that we as parents and coaches can not possibly understand what it is like to live the life of a student athlete in 2021 because it is so different from what our own athletic experiences were. Sport programs now begin and get competitive at much younger ages. We encourage our kids to be multi-sport athletes (lots of good research behind the benefits of this) and yet by the time they are 11 or 12 (sometimes even younger) each sport practices multiple times a week leaving athletes (and parents) running from one activity to the next. Then add competitions. There are also school sports which pack several practices and competitions into short seasons of play. Once athletes hit 15 years of age, most are also required to participate in some kind of dry land or strength training program. Their lives are busy and intense and their GROWING bodies are under heavy demands daily to perform in various capacities. (Huge emphasis on the ‘growing’ part there).

Let's also not forget that our kids are STUDENT athletes and that the student part comes first. Before sport they are spending their days busy at school, moving around, using their brains and interacting with many people in many different ways. With technology now, everything happens faster. They do way more in a day than we ever did.

While we might focus on encouraging healthy habits that mean fewer post game Slurpees (definitely beneficial), the reality is that our student athletes today are facing some real physiological challenges because of a lack of solid nutritional information during periods of rapid growth and prolonged physical exertion. One doesn't need to look too far to see the increases in injuries, illness, mental and emotional challenges and burn out among student athlete populations. We can look at many parts of the student athlete picture that are contributing to these less than ideal outcomes, but one commonality that most student athletes have is that they have never really learned about food and nutrition has never been a consistent component of their youth sport experience.

Our bodies require food for energy and nutrients to do thousands of complex jobs in daily. Other than having a Canada Food Guide shoved in their face at some point in elementary school, most of our student athletes have never had any real education about what food does for their growing bodies, why it is important for their health and performance and how, in the midst of their extremely busy lives, navigating many body and life changes, they are supposed to eat enough good quality food to sustain their energy requirements. Most don’t even know what their energy requirement is.

As sport administrators, coaches and parents, we have nourished our student athletes today the same way we would have nourished ourselves but I am telling you, our youth sport landscape has changed too much for this to continue.

The Female Athlete Triad is a condition that has been documented and studied in female athletes who demonstrate three main symptoms. Disordered eating (either by accident or on purpose), bone loss and amenorrhea (the absence of or dysregulation of the menstrual cycle).

In 2014, after findings that indicated more male athletes were also experiencing symptoms due to energy deficiency and overtraining, the International Olympic Committee identified the Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport Syndrome (RED-S). This syndrome now applies to male and female athletes and includes a collection of manifestations of dis-ease such as “endocrine and reproductive dysfunction, impaired bone and muscle health, psychological complaints, and performance issues.” (Vopat et al, 2020).

After the past 11 years of running workshops and educating student athletes on the importance of nutrition not only for their performance now, but for their long term health, it has become abundantly clear to me that many of our student athletes are experiencing RED-S NOW. The majority of student athletes that I lead through activities in which we assess and analyze their current eating patterns discover that, on a regular basis they do not meet the energy requirements of their Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). The BMR is the number of calories that we require to maintain basic physiological function at rest. Up to 70% of our daily caloric expenditure is used to maintain normal body function. Their daily required intake of calories and nutrients is substantially more than their BMR and they are nowhere near hitting that target.

As a parent and a coach we MUST consider this when our athletes come to practice exhausted. When they can’t seem to perform to our standards.

When they experience an acute injury that continues to plague them.

When they are sick all the time.

When they break down on court.

When they make silly mental errors.

When they can’t seem to focus.

When they hit performance and training plateaus.

We have grown up in systems (including sport) that focus on individual pieces rather than the whole and that direct attention to symptoms over the root causes of problems. I see parallels to this in our youth sport system every day.

Tape the ankle and play on.

Drink the energy drink when you feel tired.

Push through the pain despite the consequences.

Get frustrated because of unsatisfactory performance.

The root cause of many of the challenges our young athletes are facing starts with a lack of good quality food and strategies for eating well. We need to start addressing this.

Our student athletes are essentially malnourished.

They are not only energy deficient, they are energy depleted.

Their performance and enjoyment of sport suffers in the moment.

And their health suffers long term.

So sure, I can tell my athletes and kids to cut out the Slurpees. That’s a start. But the real changes and advances for our student athletes will come when we help them really understand what their bodies need in terms of nutrition at the most foundational level.

How much they need to eat daily to feel good and perform well.

How their activity level impacts their energy levels.

What macro nutrients are important and why.

What vitamins and minerals are important and what foods we get them from.

What happens when they don’t get enough and how to correct it.

And perhaps most important, HOW to do it all in a way that doesn’t add additional stress to their lives (and their parent’s lives).

We can't just throw a food guide at them and assume they will figure it out. They are navigating many complex factors in their young brains during a very busy time of their life and they simply need ongoing support. I mean let's be honest. There are many of us adults who are still trying to figure out our own relationships with food. We know this takes time and support. Imagine if we had figured this stuff out when we were younger.

I have always believed that sport is one of the most abundant classrooms for teaching about life's most powerful lessons. And I believe the time is coming when we will see the big picture of these lessons within the youth sport journey more clearly than we have in the past.

Teaching student athletes about nutrition does not have to be hard. It doesn't have to take up a lot of time. It doesn't even have to cost an arm and a leg. However, each of these powerful investments WILL save our student athletes in the long run.

We get to think bigger than Slurpees now. We get to truly empower our student athletes with information that enriches their health, enhances their performance and maximizes their enjoyment of their youth sport experience and beyond.

For more information on how you can get access to nutritional programming and support for your student athlete(s), their teams and their sport programs, go to https://www.djwellnessconsulting.com/wellnessforstudentathletes

If recipes and meal plans are up your alley, start here with the 7 Day Student Athlete Meal Plan for $11. OR bundle the plan with a 60 minute nutritional consultation for your student athlete for $88. Contact me at info@djwellnessconsulting


Vopat, L., Mackay, M. J., Vopat, B. G., & Mulcahey, M. K. (2021). Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport: an Orthopaedic Perspective. The Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 29(1), e14–e21. https://doi.org/10.5435/JAAOS-D-20-00460

66 views0 comments