Trending Diets for Young Athletes
Trending Diets for Young Athletes
When school sports and recreational sports hit the pause button in 2020, young athletes were faced with the challenges of staying in shape and being ready to perform once play resumed. In this episode, we talk to Brittany Wehrle, a performance Dietitian with Children’s Health Andrews Institute for Sports Performance. She shares about an indirect impact of the shutdown — awareness of nutrition habits and diets.
We discuss the trending diets athletes are leaning into to be ready to compete again and get an edge over the competition. Is plant-based a good option? What about intermittent fasting? Hear from Brittany on what seems to be working for the athletes she works with here in North Texas.
Enjoy this episode and other episodes of Hustle and Pro in our archives.
[01:20] Young athletes concerns
[03:33] Three trending diets in youth athletes
[05:07] Is plant-based healthy?
[15:08] Intermittent fasting
[17:50] Best diet & tips for young athletes
Resources within this episode:
- Children’s Health: Website | Instagram @childrens and @childrenshealth_athlete
- Kelly Walker: Bio | Instagram @kelly_walkertexas | Twitter: @kelly_walker_TX
Connect with Lifestyle Frisco:
Welcome to this episode of Hustle & Pro. I’m, your host, Kelly Walker. Nutrition and food, especially for active and athletic people, is a fascinating topic for me, personally. I’ve been on a food journey the last couple of years. So, this topic is very exciting. It’s something I think about and want to talk about all the time. So, today we’re going to explore that with Brittany Wehrle. Hi Brittany. Thanks for joining us.
Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
I’m excited to talk to you and learn. Um, so you are a Performance Dietician with Children’s Health at the Andrews Institute Sports Performance Powered by EXOS. Am I saying EXOS, right? You are. I always wonder when I see it on the side, is it, do you say E X O S or do you say “exo.” So, good to know? Okay. So what we’re going to talk about today is I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Um, as I have young athletes and I see their friends and I hear what they’re talking about, especially on the female side of workouts and extra workouts and food and diets and all these things. So I want to talk about how this past year has maybe shifted and impacted some things in the, in that world. Um, you know, as we know, COVID canceled school sports and rec sports and clubs, sports, and pro sports, all kinds of different things, and that physically impacts athletes. But I want to talk, I want to hear from you, um, what that looks like, and some of the indirect impacts as it falls out, like we talked about with, with diet and food. So tell me, um, like young athletes that are concerned about staying in shape and what are, what are you seeing the most happen right now?
Yes, ma’am. So, first of all, I just want to say thank you for opening up this question specifically. Um, because I think it’s something a lot of people aren’t talking about enough, and I just want to put a disclaimer. What I’m going to talk about here is, you know, anecdotal with what we are seeing in our facility with our athletes. I think there’s going to be some good evidence to show this stuff later on, but what we’re seeing right now is, as you mentioned, there is this concern with a lot of, you know, youth and high school athletes to stay in shape, stay competitive, come back to that first practice or the start of season, just as strong as they were when the world stopped last March. And it’s putting a lot of undue stress on them. And for a lot of them, they are channeling that stress into either food or exercise, because those are some of the controllable factors in their life, right? They can’t really control if their facility is open or if they’re going to be able to compete at the regional or national level, like they expected to. Um, they really control though, if they’re doing extra workouts, if they are, you know, changing their portions, if they’re cutting foods out, they, they see that as a place to kind of get an edge and avoid getting out of shape. But for a lot of them combining social isolation and removal of that sport, which is part of their identity and stress on food, that’s not in my opinion, a great mix to be, you know, in the middle of, essentially. So it is causing a lot of, you know, disordered eating behaviors or thoughts at least.
Yeah. So with those eating behaviors, I mean, adults have, we’re talking about kids here too, but adults have, we have some really trendy diets happening. This isn’t nothing new. This has happened our whole lives, but what are you seeing as far as trends in the way younger athletes are eating or the diets that they’re following. Maybe they’re their own, or are they following certain diets that we know by name?
Yeah. So I would say, I mean, there’s definitely, you know, variations within individual athletes and some of them pick up things that I’m like, “I’ve never heard that.” But on kind of a, you know, big-picture view, I would say, um, one that is a little bit specific to athletes, one that we aren’t seeing as much in general population is going to be like, plant-based. So, either vegetarian or vegan diets. And that’s primarily because of, um, a lot of professional athletes talking about being plant-based, you know, being vocal about it on social media. And then there have been documentaries one in particular that looked at athletes and vegan diets specifically. So I think that one’s a little bit unique to the athletes we see compared to, you know, maybe their parents or whoever. Um, but then the keto and intermittent fasting trends definitely do trickle down into the youth and high school athlete population.
Yes, for sure. I guess those are in line- they align with adults, the way adults are dieting right now, too. Um, I see that’s, that’s a common trend and I guess kids do watch their parents eating habits and how they buy food too. That affects everybody. So, um, okay. Those aren’t super surprising to me. So let’s talk about the plant-based one. Now I mentioned at the top that I have been on a food journey for the last couple of years. So, um, I’m anxious to hear your feedback because I totally know the documentary you’re talking about. Um, Game Changers. I think I’ve even had episodes about it specifically, um, when I first watched it. Um, so there’s Tom Brady-like athletes also that talk about being plant-based and how they eat and really specific on what they put in their body. So, um, from your, um, professional opinion, do you think plant-based diets are healthy for the younger athletes?
Yeah. So if you don’t mind, I would love to just touch on the Tom Brady-type-of like thought process for a quick second before we do plant-based. Okay. Awesome. Thank you.
I can talk about that for a whole hour without stopping. Yeah. Yeah.
I love it. Let’s go. So I would say one thing that’s really important if we do have, you know, youth or high school athletes listening, um, I think that ambition in sport and wanting to optimize in sport is incredible. And it’s part of why, you know, we have jobs, right? And we have so much to talk about in this realm, but I always want them to remember that Tom Brady has a huge performance team behind him. Um, and while there may be some evidence to parts of what he does with his diet, his diet is not the only thing, making him an incredible, like, you know, once in a generation kind of quarterback. Right? So he’s got so many other tools at his disposal and diet may be helping, but it’s certainly not the only piece.
Right. I mean, don’t you think it’s fair to say that it’s definitely a pretty good factor in helping lengthen the career for somebody his age, reduce some of the things like, you know, inflammation and, and things like that, but, you know, because of what he is or what actually what he isn’t putting in his body.
Yes. I think that, you know, it’s hard to know if that’s exactly what is contributing, but it should be helping that’s for sure. And then I always remind athletes that, you know, “you don’t know how many, like recovery professionals. Does he have like a sleep scientist on his team. Right. What supplements or medications, like there’s, there’s so many other factors.” But you’re absolutely right. A balanced diet that is strategic is going to help with that overall health and longevity. That’s for sure. But yeah. So I always preface with, you know, when people come to me about a very specific high-level athlete, I’m like, think about all the other tools in their toolbox.
Yeah. Even when you go to even taking it down a level, not the Tom Brady-level. Celebrities. And there are so there’s so many diets that we see that kids are seeing. If they’re seeing things on social, that aren’t a realistic thing that they can have in their life, just by our lifestyle. The time we have the resources we have, that we don’t have a chef or cook or somebody in our home all the time, preparing things and making them look the way that we see them looking on in pictures. Right. So, um, I like that you said that, that, you know, remind, hopefully you do remind these kids, like this is not our everyday situation. What we should be striving for.
Absolutely. And expecting it to be sets you up to be frustrated and think maybe you’re doing something wrong or that you’re not disciplined enough. And that’s where we get that really black-and-white thinking or that shameful thinking with our food and habits. So, yeah.
So talk to me though, about what your, your thoughts on plant-based for the younger athlete then.
Yes, absolutely. So I think, um, right off the bat, two potential benefits to plant-based are one there they actually do make it easier for athletes to meet their carbohydrate needs since so many foods in a plant-based diet are going to primarily be composed of carbohydrates. For example, if you’re getting your protein mainly from beans and legumes now, and it used to be meat, those are higher carbohydrate, right? And athlete’s carbohydrate needs are so high compared to general population that that’s really actually kind of helpful and simple. Um, and then we know that there are some long-term health benefits as well, right? Just because of the health promoting benefits of fiber and micronutrients and all that. And that’s lovely. And less things like cholesterol, right? Yes, exactly. So all those, the, the health benefits of things like the fiber and micronutrients will help with, you know, potentially chronic disease risk and all of those things. I think that one’s a harder sell for youth and high school athletes, but it definitely is a piece. Right. Um, and then a couple of downsides that I would say to be aware of are it may be harder, or I would say it’s normally harder, on a vegetarian or a vegan diet to meet your total energy or calorie needs. Because if you think about the energy needs of growth and development at their age, and then you layer on training daily or more than once a day, um, it can just really be hard for a primarily plant-based diet to contain enough calories. Yeah.
Have to be mindful and plan a little bit more and make sure that you’re adding in certain things, you know, and you’re probably gonna talk about protein, but making sure it doesn’t just happen by accident. If you are going in the plant-based route, you have to be mindful of it.
That’s I, I love that you said that. So what I’ve seen a lot is athletes come in and they say, “Hey, I want to be vegetarian,” or “I want to be vegan and guess what I did to do that? I just cut out meat? Or “I just cut out my dairy” and I say, “okay, well, what did you add back in?” Because those are pretty energy dense foods that now we’ve got to make up for somehow, otherwise you’re likely to be performing less optimally or effecting your health in certain ways. So yes, you’ve got to be intentionally be strategic. And then we do want to make sure, you know, they’re getting adequate protein and it can be hard, especially if they’re vegan to hit certain micronutrient needs as well, especially vitamin D and calcium, which are really important in their part of life because of bone development when you’re an adolescent. So it can get a little tricky. I think I’ve seen plant-based done really well for certain athletes. But, not to plug sports dieticians, most of the time it requires someone like us to be pulling some strings at the start to get into it.
For sure. It, because it’s not just, it’s, it’s not intuitive because two of us have been raised on, you know, most of us are not raised on a plant-based diet, so it’s not intuitive to just make an easy switch. You do have to do some research or use help, you know, you do you need help. Um, even if you’re doing research on your own, um, when I started that journey, I have community and I have, I have people that basically answer questions and help me out because you can’t just cut out one thing. Like you said, you have to change it up and add other things. And yeah, the young athletes, I mentioned that they’re in my car for carpools and things. They’ll talk about milk or different things and, or they’ll, they will hear me, or if we’re eating together, talk about how I don’t eat dairy in there. And they’ll say things like, well, “but you have to get calcium.” And I’m like, “I know, but let’s look at the two, let’s look at the two jugs and milk we just each drank. Like, mine has more calcium than yours.” And they’re like, shocked that, that, that a plant-based milk has more of something than what they thought they were drinking their cow’s milk because of- does that make sense? Um, so a lot of kids just don’t also know that some of these things over time, their parents’ generation think, “Oh, you have to have milk to have calcium.” But over time, some of the things like calcium aren’t as often found in milk today as they were 30, 40 years ago when we were drinking it. Right. Is that true, do you think?
I think, um, I think it’s definitely interesting how the food industry has shifted, um, and affected sort of the composition of some of our foods. It’s always hard to quantify exactly, you know, how much of something we may have lost in the process. Um, but yes, I, and that’s why we stress a lot at our facility variety, right? If you’re only relying on one product for a certain micro or macro nutrient need, you might be missing the mark and just not know it because food labels have a lot of wiggle room and food industry stats have a lot of wiggle room. So yes, I agree. It’s, it’s changed a lot. And I think variety is a really good way to, uh, kind of still lit a fire defensive against that.
I could see how kids need help from performance dieticians like you, because like my daughter, like it’s really easy. I don’t want to throw her under the bus, but it is easy for kids to say, “okay, you know, mom and dad don’t, don’t eat meat anymore. It’s not really in our house.” So her go-to might just be grilled cheese or Mac and cheese. And it’s really easy for kids to fall into the unhealthy plant-based food. Um, cause plant-based sounds healthy when you use the word plant, but it’s really easy to be an unhealthy vegan or vegetarian to where you’re just, you know, you’re eating French fries every day and, and mac and cheese, you’re not going to be, uh, at the top of your athletic performance, right?
Yes. So I, I like when athletes come to me and ask about these plant-based diets, I like to say, okay, do you think it would be easier, more enjoyable, more beneficial for you to be fully plant-based or do you think we need to just shift how often those kinds of foods are showing up in your current diet? Because for a lot of them to completely ditch meat or dairy or whatever it might be for them to completely ditch a food group that they are used to incorporating in their meals might be hard, right? They might not have parents at home like your children do that are eating plant-based and it can just get really tough for them to actually choose things that make sense and are helpful. So I always focus on, well, there are a lot of good benefits to some of the foods in a plant-based diet. Could we just do more of those? We don’t really need to take everything else out, but could we just lean into some of those foods?
Exactly. Yeah. That’s a really good point. Okay. Then talk to me about, um, the intermittent fasting, when you mentioned that as one of the trending diets with kiddos. I’m seeing that too, and I always wonder about them. Um, mostly what I’m curious from you is like the longevity, the health, like long long-term wise, is it, is it true that something like intermittent fasting shouldn’t be a lifestyle? It should be more of a short-term use.
I think it depends on, you know, how you look at it, I guess, or like what benefits you’re trying to pull for it. But in, in the younger populations, I don’t really think it fits into either. I hope that’s not disheartening. I don’t think it’s a good long-term trend for them to shoot for. And also for them, it’s not going to be a quick fix. And if, um, and I’ll, I’ll tell you why, because it, it can be incredibly difficult. Even for me with six years experience as a sports dietician to get a growing active athlete enough calories. I mean, it might take like a specific meal plan. It might take very specific foods or timing. And oftentimes I’m spreading their food out from 7:00 AM to 8 or 9:00 PM, just because they’re so busy and so active that if we don’t, we won’t hit the Mark,
You’re condensing those hours, you’re saying it’s, it’s really hard to get the calories in.
Absolutely. It can be near impossible for say a 15-year old soccer player who is playing school and club soccer to eat all of their calories in 6 hours and have it actually be effective and enjoyable
In a healthy way. I mean they could go eat a 2000 calorie meal at eight o’clock at night, but that’s not what you’re wanting them to do. We want them to spread it out, eat the right nutrients right throughout the day, all the time where their body’s always burning it. Is that more of what you think is the right plan?
So there is a limit to how much calories, protein, all of that, that you can utilize at one time. Um, it’s not as low as I think we’re led to believe, but yes, there’s definitely a limit to- and that’s why I said like, uh, effective and enjoyable, right. Is, is a 2000 calorie meal, regardless of what’s in it going to be as enjoyable or effective as spreading it out to three 700-and-something calorie meals. Probably not. Right. So, so yeah, to make, to make quality decisions and to eat in a way that like feels good and doesn’t leave you overstuffed or scrambling to find more calories because you only have an hour left. Yeah. Intermittent fasting doesn’t really make it easy to do those things for kids. Yeah.
Yeah. That makes sense. I’ve never thought about the difference, you know, with younger adults, um, in that regard, that makes, that makes a lot of sense. Okay. Then to wrap up, tell me what your, from your perspective, what is the best diet like what’s ideal for a growing young athlete. And I guess we’re talking kind of that I’m thinking the teenage like 14 up to, you know, maybe 20 year olds, um, you might have a different demographic you want to tell me about, but what’s the best thing that you would want to see them doing and eating?
Yeah. So that age group works perfectly because that is a lot of what we see. We do have youth athletes as well, but let’s just say, you know, you’re like typical high school athlete. I think some of the most effective things they can do, if they’re, let’s be honest, mostly wanting performance and convenience – and then we’re also kind of considering health as well, right? Like if we’re trying to make all of those things work together, um, in their priorities, I think the most effective things they can do with their diet are make sure they’re optimizing pre and post fueling. So actually making smart decisions before and after they’re active so that they can get the most out of training and recover as optimally as possible. Um, so that might mean making sure they’re eating a snack or a meal within the right time before practice.
Even if they’re busy, they’ve got to find something and make it work and then always recovering as well. Um, and then definitely wherever they can incorporate more fruits and vegetables almost, you know, almost none of the high school athletes I talk to do that enough, if they can find ways to do it simply, right, um, adding fruit to their snacks, making smoothies on the weekends when they have a little more time, like whatever it is, and then being very wary of nutrition advice that isn’t coming from medical professionals, I think, or sports dietician specifically. I think if they can focus on those three components, they’ll get a lot of bang for their buck from their diet.
Leaving it to people like you who look at this every day. Um, and then the pre and post fueling and recovery and fruits and vegetables, that’s all very, that sounds so simple, but it’s harder than it sounds right. That’s why, that’s why, that’s why you’re there.
Exactly. And I think right now we live in this space where we have information overload about a lot of things, but especially in like that health and performance realm, we are getting so much information on a daily basis. And I get questions like, “well, is this type of sugar better or worse than that kind.” And realistically, that athlete that asked me that isn’t even eating three meals a day. So I always say the things that are going to move the needle the most are the simple, not super cool things. And then once you’ve got those down really well, we can totally talk about that nitty gritty and get into, you know, those fine tuning kind of things. But most athletes in high school aren’t there yet.
Yeah. I mean, that’s a whole ‘nother layer. You have to figure out the first, the first layer of base, like a, like a, a baseline platform. And that also once you’ve done that, you have to do that for a while too. You can’t have something down for three days and think you’re ready for the next level. I feel like, you know, that whole three week or 21 day, or however many things to build habits and lifestyles, and then build on that, you know, add to that or tweak your diet from there after you’ve really learned how to incorporate something new or to eliminate something, you know, doing something all at once is too much to ask, especially for kids; I think so.
Yes. I completely agree too much at once. Isn’t usually doable. And then the problem that also creates for us is that we don’t know which change was the most effective. So now we have to keep them all up. And that’s why I always tell my athletes, if you can get a good foundation first, let’s see how helpful that is for you. And then if you still want more, we do more.
Yeah. I love it. Okay. Well that was fast. I could seriously talk about this for awhile because I sort of got into it just a few years ago, leading up to my 40th. Um, I just sort of shifted, I needed to lose weight and just changed my life. And I just shifted the way I learned and ate and all these things and it, and has it shifted my whole family the way they, the way they eat because I buy their food. So this fascinates me. So I love the conversation and I would love to, you know, have another one, uh, drill down even farther with you in another time. But thank you, Brittany Wehrle for your time with us today.
Of course. Thank you for having me. And I would totally take you up on it if you want to get more into that nitty-gritty at another time. Because just like you, I could talk about this all day. I love it.
I bet you could. Well, thank you. And thank you audience for listening to this episode of Hustle & Pro. Be sure to subscribe wherever you listen to your podcasts and we will see you next time.