When the Chico Cheer All-Stars travel to UCA Nationals in Orlando, team owner Tiffany Hayes schedules team meals at restaurants such as Planet Hollywood, where her athletes eat chicken sandwiches, pasta and Caesar salads. “While all of the options might not be as nutritionally valuable as what we would choose to make at home, they are much better than having the athletes grab ice cream and churros for dinner while running around Disney World,” says Hayes.
Hayes’ strategy is a familiar one to many coaches: keep out cheap, sugary, processed carbs—essentially everything they sell at event concession stands—and let healthier foods in.
“I encourage carbohydrates in the forms of fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains,” said Hayes, who is also a registered dietitian. “I joke with the athletes because they all love carbs. I tell them it’s okay to eat carbohydrates, [but] just try to choose the healthy carbohydrates and create a good balance with protein as well.”
How can a coach tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy carbohydrates? Nutritionist Jonny Bowden says that if you can pull it out of the ground and eat it, it’s a food that contains healthy carbs (such as broccoli, spinach or bell peppers). Everything else is suspect. Once you identify healthy carbs for your athletes, here are some other tips to keep in mind:
Set an example. Team meals are teachable moments. “Whenever I eat around my athletes, I eat complete meals with a variety of nutrients,” says Tiana Beich, a Chico All-Stars coach and dietetics student. “I also bring healthy snacks to competitions and practices.”
Optimize your snack bar. Another way athletes absorb proper diet principles is at the gym snack bar. According to Stephanie Beveridge, the executive director of programs at Copperas Cove, TX-based GymKix, the snack bar at her gym sells fresh foods, cheese sticks, organic yogurt squeezers, Orgain protein shakes, Zevia all-natural diet soda, Switch sparkling juice, CLIF bars, Terra chips, Rip Slush, Sensible dried fruit, mixed nuts, all-natural applesauce, Umpqua oatmeal and natural beef jerky.
Head off the parent problem. Parents often bring cupcakes, cake and cookies—the types of processed carbs coaches don’t want kids eating—to the gym for celebrations. Hayes says her gym encourages parents to portion treats in individual servings to take home. “We no longer see large cakes and brownies being brought in before practice,” Hayes says. “Our staff focuses on the birthday song and having an entertaining practice more than the food associated with the event.”
Read the labels. Beveridge encourages athletes to read labels. Since many labels can be confusing, she breaks it down in a way that’s easy to understand—basically, anything with more than five ingredients or anything not easily recognized or pronounced likely isn’t a good food option.
“We try to keep it simple,” says Beveridge. “It’s hard enough to teach stunting and tumbling, but to try to explain why medium chain triglyceride fats are good and hydrogenated oils are bad would literally make their head spin. We tell them to try to shop on the outside aisles of the grocery store because that is where the meat, dairy and fresh foods are located.”
Say “no” to carb-loading. Should athletes alter their diets and “carb-load” (i.e. “stuff themselves with pasta”) before an event? Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, RD, author of the Sports Nutrition Guidebook, says unless an athlete is going to physically exert himself or herself for more than 90 minutes the next day, the answer is no. Clark encourages athletes to always fuel up and refuel with a healthy carb-based diet that includes pasta, potatoes, rice, fruits and vegetables while taking a rest day before competition. The rest day gives muscles time to store carbs for competition.