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EDWARDSVILLE – The triple cheeseburger and large fries diet may sound wonderful to a fast-food junkie, but for a high school athlete, it ranks near the top of bad nutrition choices.
Helping those athletes make the right choices is part of Katie Hamilton’s job.
Hamilton, the head athletic trainer at Edwardsville High School, provides nutrition guidance for male and female athletes in a variety of sports, and she does her best to make sure they are following a proper diet.
“Generally, I try to have them write down their habits for breakfast, lunch, dinner and the types of food they are eating,” Hamilton said. “Then we can look to see if they are getting enough to eat, regardless of the food, and make some modifications.
“Then we can talk more about food choices. A lot of kids skip breakfast or if they eat breakfast then sometimes, they end up skipping lunch because their lunch period and breakfast are close together.”
Even without her advice, Hamilton feels that high school athletes are making better nutrition choices than their counterparts from previous generations.
Part of that is due to a steady growth in nutrition-related products and a steady flow of advertising for those products.
Keeping up on the latest trends, though, may not always be the best solution for teenage athletes looking to improve their diet.
“I think there has been a lot more emphasis on it because people are becoming more educated,” Hamilton said. “It is in the media more with professional and college athletes.
“There have been a lot of trends with different types of diets that focus on cutting out complete groups of foods. I don’t necessarily think it’s appropriate for most high school-aged athletes unless they need to do it for a medical or health reason.”
Hamilton recommends that athletes eat plenty of whole grains, vegetables, lean meats and protein.
On the other hand, she suggests they cut down on foods high in processed sugar, heavily fried food, processed food and foods with low nutritional value.
EHS football player Evan Ramirez is among those who have taken Hamilton’s suggestions to heart.
A 6-foot-1, 210-pound senior middle linebacker, Ramirez was starting to make good nutrition choices even before he took the field for the Tigers.
“I started watching my nutrition around eighth grade and I saw major differences in my play on the field and how I felt,” Ramirez said. “I started to lift weights and I started to eat clean. I gave up sweets and I don’t drink soda, but I drink water and Gatorade.
“For lunch, I’ll usually have a clean protein or a white meat plus rice or a vegetable like broccoli. I’ll eat chicken and if I have fish, I usually have something like salmon or tilapia. If I eat sausage, it’s usually turkey or something lean.”
Another EHS football senior, Trey Lowry, also pays close attention to his diet.
As with Ramirez, clean eating has produced positive results for Lowry on and off the field.
“The biggest thing for me is avoiding over-processed foods,” said Lowry, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound wide receiver and safety. “My general rule is that if it is whole food and you can tell somebody what you’re putting in your body, it’s going to be better for you than something like a Twinkie. I had a sweet tooth when I was little, but now I try stay away from high-carb stuff like cookies and brownies.
“I haven’t had soda for about two years and that was the first big thing I cut out. I stick to water or drink lemonade once in a while. Cutting liquid calories is a good starting point. When it comes to food, chicken and rice are my best friends. Replacing those sweets with fruits and vegetables is another key thing.”
Hamilton doesn’t have separate nutrition guidelines for male and female athletes, but the guidelines do vary from sport to sport.
“Most of the time it’s making sure they are consuming enough,” Hamilton said. “It’s a little more dependent on their sport and energy needs.
“A wrestler is going to eat differently than a football player because of the nature of their sports.”
Dustin Davis, an assistant coach for the EHS boys and girls cross country teams and an assistant coach for the girls track and field team, does have specific concerns about female distance runners and their diet.
“With girls especially, we try to make sure our athletes know how many calories a day they need to be taking,” Davis said. “We’re looking for things that are higher in iron because iron deficiency is something that has plagued us.
“A lot of girls have been going to a lower meat diet and some of them are vegetarians or vegans, and those are athletes who are at a higher risk of iron deficiency because the easiest way to get iron is red meat.”
Davis and the other coaches also try to make sure that female distance runners don’t becoming obsessed with cutting calories to maintain a certain weight.
“Girls especially feel the pressure to fit a particular body type as distance runners and a lot of times what they forget is when you look at somebody who has been really successful, is that person has not achieved that body style simply because of their diet,” Davis said. “We have to make sure these girls are getting the proper calories because it’s not sustainable to cut calories and lose weight just to fit that body style.”
For athletes looking to improve their nutrition and monitor their progress, plenty of tools are available.
“There are a lot of great apps that can help you track what you’re eating and daily water intake,” Hamilton said. “I think it is good so that they can see themselves how much or how little they are getting throughout the day.
“My Fitness Pal is a great app and nutrition.gov is a great website. It’s also a good idea to keep a journal.”
While proper nutrition can go a long way in improving an athlete’s performance, conditioning and weight training play a key role as well.
To Hamilton, proper diet and proper exercise go hand in hand.
“I try to use an analogy that I heard from continuing education seminar I attended a few years back — you wouldn’t be able to drive a car very far on an empty gas tank, so don’t do the same to your body,” Hamilton said.
“Nutrition is huge to help the body with recovery, muscle gain and athletic performance. While it is important to eat healthier foods, it is also important that an athlete eats something rather than not eating at all.”
Ramirez is also a believer in weight training, and he feels the combination of lifting and proper diet has increased his endurance.
“I usually try to work out four or five times a week and some people might say that’s too much, but it makes me feel better and more confident,” Ramirez said. “When I’m on the field in the fourth quarter, I’m like ‘this is a breeze’ and everyone else is huffing and puffing. Between working out and eating right, if you combine those two, you’ll see a major jump in your play.”
The nutrition marketplace is loaded with supplements and vitamins of all sorts, many of which are touted as ideal complements to proper diet and exercise.
But for the most part, Hamilton doesn’t recommend a lot of supplements for athletes at EHS.
“It’s an industry that isn’t always highly regulated,” Hamilton said. “There are a few people and places in town that I think are good resources to help with healthy eating habits and figuring out which changes should be made first instead of just jumping straight to supplements.
“If I feel an athlete may be vitamin deficient, I will usually refer them to a doctor that deals with those types of issues, where they would get blood tests to figure out what exactly they are deficient in and what to supplement with.”
Hamilton also warns athletes not to consume a lot of caffeine or pre-workout supplements.
“Those things cause a spike in heart rate and can be harmful if too much is consumed or the activities in which they are participating already puts a decent amount of cardiovascular stress on the body,” Hamilton said. “Most of those things are targeted at the 18 or older crowd.”
Reach reporter Scott Marion at email@example.com