5 Nutrition Myths for the Growing Swimmer that Won’t Die
by Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Certain tenets of nutrition are tried and true, backed by the research, and used in practical and effective ways. Take, for instance, the evidence on protein distribution in athletes. Research continues to unfold, building a stronger case for even protein distribution throughout the day, and athletes can translate this evidence into their day-to-day eating.
Other beliefs about nutrition are just that – beliefs. They are not necessarily based in science, rather based in social proof. (“I’m doing it and it works!”) Or, the science has evolved to reveal new knowledge, but the folks won’t let the old myth die.
Here are a few of those nutrition myths that just won’t die:
Young Swimmers Need to Load up on Carbs Before a Meet
Although a popular concept, carbohydrate loading has not been proven effective in young athletes. For one, carbohydrate loading is an approach based on what we know about the adult metabolism of carbohydrate. When researchers have studied the young athlete, they’ve found they don’t store – or load – carbohydrate in their muscles as well as adults. Females, because they have less muscle mass than males, store even less. It’s not until teens reach late adolescence and adulthood that they may see the benefits of carb-loading on their performance.
The Science: A consistently high carbohydrate diet (45-65% of calories from carbohydrate) day in and day out provides the consistent and reliable fuel source the growing athlete needs.
Regular Food isn’t Good Enough
As the food industry for engineered sports foods and supplements has grown, so has the idea that regular food isn’t good enough.
But in most cases, it is.
What manufacturers cannot duplicate in food is the blend and concentrations of a variety of nutrients and how they uniquely interact in the body. "Although bars contain added protein, vitamins and mineral, we really have no idea how well any of those nutrients are absorbed in the body; with real food, you know what will get delivered to your body," says Dr. Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN, CSSD and professor emerita of nutrition at Georgia State University.
The Science: There is no evidence that suggests better sports performance in children and teens when extra vitamins, minerals and other nutrients are added to the diet in the form of multivitamins or single nutrients, taken alone or engineered in food. Anchor the sports diet in real food. It’s more satisfying, tasty, nutritious, and a proven energy and nutrient delivery system that works.
Dehydration Causes Cramps
Research has been slim in proving that dehydration and electrolyte abnormalities are the root cause of muscle cramps. This is partly due to the fact that muscle cramps are spontaneous and often unpredictable, making them difficult to re-enact in the lab setting.
One researcher, Kevin C. Miller, proposes neuromuscular fatigue (muscle exhaustion) as a theory for why muscle cramps occur in athletes. Neuromuscular fatigue stems from overuse of the muscles coupled with inadequate rest. When a muscle is extremely tired, mechanisms within the muscle start to misfire. Small nerves that should keep the muscle from over-contracting may malfunction, and cause the muscle to cramp.
The Science: Adequate hydration is critical to any young athlete’s performance, but there are other key things the swimmer can do to avoid cramps such as stretching, adjusting the training intensity, eating more fruit (for potassium) and salty foods, and even trying pickle juice, as it has been demonstrated to quickly reverse cramps in some athletes.
Swimmers Can Eat Anything (& As Much as They Want)
Michael Phelps highlighted the ‘eat anything and as much as you want’ approach to sports nutrition during the 2008 Olympics, registering an out-of-this-world daily calorie intake that showcased unhealthy foods. He was clearly going for quantity, rather than quality.
While swimming is a grueling, high-calorie-burning sport, the best athletes understand that the sweet spot is quantity and quality when it comes to their sports diet.
Not surprisingly, according to a Men’s Health magazine interview in 2012 (http://www.menshealth.com/fitness/the-new-michael-phelps-diet), Phelps revised his sports diet, opting for healthier foods that help his body perform better.
The Science: Meals and snacks filled with unhealthy foods – sweets, fried food, and other processed food – won’t give the growing athlete the foundation to perform well, or establish healthy eating for years later. And, according to some recent research, poor eating contributes to unhealthy weight gain and obesity, even in young athletes. Paying attention to the type of foods in your sports diet is just as important as making sure enough calories are on board.
Athletes Need More Protein
True, studies in young athletes show there is an increased need for protein in athletes compared to non-athletes. Athletes are building more muscle during exercise and need a bit more protein for the muscle repair work that occurs after exercise.
This increased need is about an extra 20 grams per day in a 100-pound athlete or an extra 25 to 40 grams of protein per day in the 140-pound athlete. (The equivalent, food-wise? Add an extra three to six ounces of meat, another 2 cups of Greek yogurt, or a ham/egg/cheese breakfast sandwich. Can you say 4th meal?).
The Science: Most young athletes get plenty of protein in their diet from the food they eat. In fact, studies show that most young athletes eat 2-3 times more protein than they need. However, swimmers who diet or follow a vegan diet may fall short on good protein sources.
Got a nutrition myth that needs to find a resting place? Let me know!
Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian, childhood nutritionist, and youth sports nutrition expert. She is the author of Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete. Learn more about Jill at www.JillCastle.com and check out her free list of 70 Awesome Pre-Workout Snacks for Kids.