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The best food for the young athlete
by Dev Mishra, May 2nd, 2011 12:04AM

TAGS:  youth boys, youth girls


By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.

Here’s a revelation: eat the least processed food you can find.

Right, that’s not a revelation. You’ve heard it before but it’s not an easy thing to do when feeding the typical American teenage athlete. But it can be done, especially if you try to stick to the 80/20 rule that I’ll outline below.

There are a lot of different diets and recommendations around but the number of choices is very confusing, and frankly, I’m not sure all of them are safe for young athletes. What we’re trying to do with a young athlete is make them as healthy as possible to improve their sport performance -- but more importantly I believe that we can set them up with good habits for a lifetime of healthy eating.

What I’m talking about here is eating as close to natural and minimally processed foods as possible. Some nutritionists call this “eating close to the ground” and other call it “eating clean,” etc., and it means stepping back to the old days of eating the most nutrient-packed and least processed foods you can find.

It means shopping on the edges of the grocery store and not down the middle of the store in the pre-packaged frozen foods section. The nutrients, vitamins, and minerals found in natural foods will almost always lead to an improved health profile, improved performance, decreased body fat if the child is overweight, and increased energy levels.

Examples of good food choices for the young athlete
It’s hard shopping for young athletes because they can be pretty set in their ways and are heavily influenced by their friends -- who may be eating poorly. Here are just a few examples of what you should aim for in the food choices:

Fruits and Vegetables
* Apples, bananas, berries, kiwis, oranges
* Dried fruits as snacks
* 100 percent fruit smoothies from places like Jamba Juice
* Leafy greens such as kale, spinach, collard
* Beans and lentils
* Avocado

Meat, Fish, Nuts, and Dairy
* Lean meats: chicken, turkey, lean beef
* Fish: tuna, salmon
* Nuts: almonds, walnuts, macadamia, pecans, cashews
* Dairy: low fat milk, low fat yogurt, eggs

Bread, Cereal, and Grains
* Bread: 100% whole wheat or whole grain, rye, sourdough
* High fiber cereal such as Kashi or Cheerios.
* Oatmeal
* Couscous

Let’s get real, kids will be kids: the 80/20 rule
The guidelines above represent the ideal situations but the practical matter is that it’s impossible to have a young athlete follow these suggestions all the time. That’s where the 80/20 rule comes into play.

The 80/20 rule means that 80 percent of the time you stick with the healthy eating rules and 20 percent of the time you’re allowed to “cheat” and stray from the ideal. When one of your teammates has a birthday and cupcakes are the post-game “snack”-- go for it and enjoy it with your friends! Having a (very) occasional burger, fries, and soda? OK, then do the best you can with your other meals that week.

Be realistic and do the best you can, when you can. You’ll live a healthier life for the effort and it will allow you to perform at your best during games.

(Dev K. Mishra is the founder of, where this article first appeared. He is an orthopedic surgeon in private practice in Burlingame, Calif. He is a member of the team physician pool with the U.S. Soccer Federation and has served as team physician at the University of California, Berkeley.)

  1. Janice Hilgendorf
    commented on: May 2, 2011 at 2:42 p.m.
    I agree with most of these items with a couple of exceptions. Jamba Juice should be viewed as the 20%. It has 65 g. of carbs with 45 of those from sugar! Also, smoothies have less fiber, better to make your own or better yet have a piece of fruit and some greek yogurt. Also, dried fruit is high in sugar, a fine replacement for candy. Also, dried fruit encourages tooth decay.
  1. Kraig Richard
    commented on: May 2, 2011 at 5:48 p.m.
    Unless you've got stock in General Mills, I'd steer away from a high processed heavy sugar laden product like Cheerios. Read the box. We multi carb 2 hours ahead of time with some good pasta(keeps in fridge wet) good rice, and some good bread lightly toasted. He has sea salt on his food or in his beverage. New favorite beverage....maple syrup, water, lime. vinegar, and powdered ginger.
  1. John Votto
    commented on: May 3, 2011 at 1:03 a.m.
    Lessen the sugar content and consume good carbs 2- 2.5 hour before matches. We went to a sports nutritionist. He suggested having a nutritious shake in lieu of chocolate ice cream or another snack. He gave us a couple of samples and I have to say we thought it was great tasting. We now have two shakes almost everyday. We also use the 80/20 rule. To learn more about the "shake" go to or
  1. Jennifer Grippo
    commented on: May 4, 2011 at 10:07 a.m.
    Has anyone ever heard of MonaVie?? It is a natural/organic juice made of 19 fruits from around the world. The main fruit is Acai which is known for energy. You drink 2 oz in the a.m. and 2 oz p.m. and you will receive the antioxidant equivalent of eating 9-12 servings of fruits and veggies!! USDA recommends 5-9/day. Amazing stuff & it tastes GREAT. check it out @

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