Denzil Wilks | Nutritional care for our young athletes
For the purposes of this discourse, we will consider persons in the 12-18 years age category as young athletes. This age group represents possibly the greatest potential in terms of athleticism. The muscles are beginning to develop, and with those, strength and dexterity. In fact, science indicates that both bones and muscles are developing rather rapidly in this phase of growth.
Appetites tend to be almost limitless in this period, hence the critical concern regarding nutrition. With athletes and the typical level of activity, the appetite challenge is even bigger. Hence the need to manage what is a growing phenomenon in all respects.
The natural tendency in middle- and lower-income families is to consume almost everything in sight. Tradition and availability usually dictate the content and variety of food consumed. The rural as against urban residents tend to have differing tastes. What is fortunate is that in the last twenty to thirty years, the increased availability of qualified coaches in schools and communities has allowed for guidance for our athletes as far as their nutritional habits are concerned.
According to a study examining sports nutrition for young athletes, “an ideal diet comprises 45 per cent to 65 per cent carbohydrates, 10 per cent to 30 per cent protein, and 25 per cent to 35 per cent fat”. Nutrition provides the source of energy for an athlete to perform an activity. Eating the right food will impact both performance and recovery for both training and competition. Staying optimally hydrated reduces the risk of injury and muscle fatigue, both key markers in sports performance.
WHAT PRO ATHLETES REALLY EAT
• Plenty of vegetables, legumes, and fruits.
• Plenty of wholegrain cereals (including breads, rice, pasta, and noodles).
• Include lean meat, fish, poultry, or vegetarian alternatives such as tofu or legumes (peas and beans) at both lunch and dinner daily.
The preceding bullet points represent conventional thinking as far as nutrition and eating habits are concerned. The question, however, is the extent to which the matter of affordability impacts the real practice in terms of eating habits. It is interesting to note that most high schools that are involved in sporting competitions engage their athletes in camps as part of their preparation. While being in these camps, the athletes are generally able to receive a reasonable diet.
In spite of the improved attention to dietary practices, it must be recognised that many of our athletes are not always in a controlled situation. The reality is that once some athletes who are from the more challenged circumstances are out of the camps and schools, the tendency towards what is available, in terms of ease of access and affordability, will dominate their choices.
Of major concern is the attraction of alcoholic beverages and the tendency towards “energy drinks”. Our athletes are quite vulnerable to a growing tendency towards mixing energy drinks with alcoholic beverages and the attendant dangers thereof. It seems that only education and close monitoring can reduce this tendency among our athletes. A major deterrent towards this tendency is the drug testing that has become quite prevalent among those athletes who attain national consideration.
The work of the Jamaica Anti-doping Commission, particularly the educational aspect of this work, can significantly and positively impact the nutritional levels of our athletes. The challenge in this regard is to be able to reach the talent in the deep rural areas as well as the inner cities. Contrary to popular belief, social media is not a panacea, and the message of quality nutrition may not always get to the talent.
It has to be noted that the identified talent that emerges through the high schools and JAAA Development Meets usually gets the requisite guidance in all respects, inclusive of nutrition. We must, however, spare a thought for the real talent that exists but may not be identified in time to place them on a firm nutritional footing. This can result in a negative developmental impact, which can have long-term effects. The message, therefore, needs to be disseminated in a much more comprehensive manner.
The fact that there may be latent talent that is unidentified suggests that there is need for a national approach to communication of the nutritional imperatives of a healthy lifestyle. It is in this regard that institutions and organisations at all levels need to agree on certain basic messages. The role of the Heart Foundation of Jamaica and its advocacy for healthy food policies to create supportive environments for the Jamaican population is pivotal as this could be the central coordinating entity, which provides, not just the guidance, but also the linkages required to get the message into the “nooks and crannies” across the length and breadth of the island. Fortunately, good nutrition, (and I speak advisedly) is not specific to each individual sport. This suggests that a generic message can be communicated across the landscape so designed to positively impact not just our athletes, but the general public. This would set the stage for a healthier society, and the creation of an even more potent base from which talent can emerge.
So nutritional care for our athletes goes beyond the chosen few, so to speak, and extends across the landscape. Talent abounds across the length and breadth of this island and must be given the best chance for successful nurturing.
- Denzil Wilks is the general manager, Sports Development Foundation. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.