Zombies exist purely in the realm of science fiction, but, as many parents and guardians of teenagers know, something vaguely reminiscent of the horror movie staple can often be seen stumbling to the breakfast table — or straight out the door — on any given morning. “Most kids are just not getting enough sleep,” explained Eric Santure. He works with athletes at Spearfish High School
and is a Performance Enhancement Specialist with Monument Health Orthopedics and Sports Medicine.
And it’s not just a full night’s sleep that teens are missing. Eric and his sports medicine colleagues at Monument Health work with high school students every day, and they see both the chronic undersleeping and undereating that is afflicting teens. They also know what it takes to get teenagers out of the fog and back to their best.
Off to Never-Never Land
Faith Wilson, Performance Coach for Monument Health Sports Performance Institute and South Dakota Mines, explained that there’s a lot at stake when it comes to teens getting adequate sleep. “It’s been proven when sleep quality decreases, so does attention span in school,” she said. “Mental health is impacted. Performance and recovery as an athlete declines. The likelihood of injuries while playing sports goes up, too.” Almost every aspect of a teen’s life is impacted in a negative way by scant slumber.
Eric said that a common early morning scene at the Spearfish High School gym is under-fed and under-rested teens. “Their faces turn pale, and they’ll look absolutely exhausted after about five minutes of weight training. And then I’ll ask them what they did last night; it’s usually something like, ‘played Xbox until 1 in the morning.’”
Running on Empty
Eric’s follow-up question to his lethargic lifters usually centers around their food intake that day. The typical breakfast? “Nothing,” Eric reported. “The large majority of high schoolers are chronically undereating,” he said. “Chronic undereating in teenagers impacts their attention span in the classroom. And it impacts their performance and recovery as an athlete.”
Faith said, “Most teens I know — and most people in general — don’t want to go into exercise feeling full. But you need to have something in your stomach — a piece of toast or half a Clif Bar or something. Running on empty while working out has the potential to cause some major damage.”
Food as fuel is a mantra that can be heard consistently from Monument Health’s sports medicine caregivers. And for athletes, this metaphor is obvious — if you want your body to perform in a certain way, then it needs access to carefully curated nutrition — and a lot of it. But what about those moments when your teen’s body doesn’t need to bench 200 pounds or sprint up and down a basketball court for 48 minutes? Does a teen body still need the kind of beefed up calorie consideration that these coaches are preaching to their athletes?
The average teenager burns more calories than the average adult. For most teens, their bodies are still growing. These growth spurts require a huge uptick in caloric intake. But teens aren’t just growing physically. They also need to consider mental performance.
Always on My Mind
Teens are burning calories in calculus class. A teen’s brain needs fuel just like the rest of their body. The biggest fuel source for a teen’s brain — or anyone’s — is a nutrient that has gotten a bit of bad rap. Alissa Towsley, Performance Dietitian at Monument Health Sports Performance Institute, reveals the brain’s preferred fuel: carbs.
Carbohydrates, despite being dragged through the mud in recent years, are a vital source of energy for the human brain. “It’s all about nutrient timing and knowing the different kinds of carbs out there,” Alissa said. “Simple carbs are like white bread, pasta and some kinds of fruits — our bodies can easily and quickly utilize these to refuel, so simple carbs are good for a quick burst of energy.” Feeling sluggish and you have that history exam in 10 minutes? A PB&J might just provide your teen with enough perk to get through those essay questions with a clear head.
What about that day of back-to-back finals? Start your morning with carbs of a different variety. Alissa explained, “Complex carbs are things like whole grains and oatmeal — things with fiber in them. Complex carbs will help you feel fuller longer and help with digestion.” Steady, consistent energy through the day is what complex carbs are bringing to the table. Learning to time carbs is key to staying alert and running at full capacity, both at practice and in class.
Alissa Towsley, Performance Dietitian for Monument Health Sports Performance Institute, said, “Drink half your body weight in fluid ounces. So, for a 150 pound individual, they need to be drinking 75 fluid ounces; 20 ounces for every hour of exercise. If it’s hot, replenish electrolytes.”
Electrolytes are salts that living things use to maintain healthy body systems. Humans and other animals need electrolytes for things like muscle contractions, to maintain proper blood pressure and other vital functions. “Hydrate right away in the morning,” Eric added. “You don’t want to play catch up with hydration. Drink a big glass of water with your breakfast, not just coffee.”
All in All
So how do we keep our teens well-fed and playing and learning at their best? Alissa said that routine is a big factor for feeding teens well. “Having a consistent eating schedule is huge, including regular snacks.” Make breakfast quick and predictable and something that is enjoyable to eat. Make it something hard to skip.
And make snacks readily available. Chips and cookies have their places, but access to nuts and other foods with plant-based fats have special benefits. “Unsaturated fats — found in things like nuts, olive oil and other plant-based fat sources — help with cell structure and can reduce inflammation. They can also help with mental clarity,” Alissa said. She added that crafting meals can be simple if you remember the three-for-three rule. “That means three meals a day with these three things: a protein, a carb and a fruit or vegetable.”
Putting all of these feeding instructions together may seem a little bit like looking after a gremlin, but making sure your teen is rested and fed enough couldn’t be more crucial to their success in both sports and in the classroom. Food is fuel, after all.
Has there ever been a more notorious nutrient? Carbs are a hotly debated topic for many dieters. Should this macronutrient get such a bad rap? Probably not, said Alissa Towsley, Performance Dietician for Monument Health Sports Performance Institute. “It’s our brain’s preferred energy source,” she said. And she explained that carbs come in two varieties: simple and complex.
“Simple carbs are great for a quick burst of energy. Complex carbs can give us a longer, more consistent source of energy.”
Simple carbs include:
Complex carbs include:
• Whole grains
Working out without any protein is like having a crew show up to construct your house without building materials.
“If we have protein readily available in our bodies after a workout — from a protein shake or some chocolate milk — we’re guaranteeing that there’s a big stack of lumber and a big bucket of nails ready when the carpenters show up,” Eric said.
Did he say chocolate milk? Over 20 papers have been published that support drinking chocolate milk post workout. As a liquid, it’s quickly consumed and digested. And the protein to carbohydrate ratio in the beloved beverage is just about perfect for most people. “There are a lot of Division 1 universities that stock their weight room coolers with chocolate milk,” Eric added.
Written by Stephen Simpson