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GUTS - Evolving Student Athlete Nutrition

Nutritional Strategies for Student Athletes with ADHD

Diane  Johnson
Diane JohnsonPublished on June 14, 2022

At GUTS we hold strong to the belief that every student athlete has unique needs and challenges when it comes to fueling their bodies. This is perhaps most apparent when it comes to student athletes living with ADHD. While sport is often a place that they floruish because it allows them to expend a great deal of energy, ensuring their nutritional needs are met can be tricky. In this post we highlight some of the challenges these young athletes face as well as strategies to ensure they are eating enough and getting the nutrients they need for optimum performance in sport and in life.

1) Student athletes with ADHD have higher energy demands for three reasons. They are in a period of rapid growth, the energy demands of their sport are high and because of their tendancy to be hyperactive, they are also in motion more often than their peers. We help atheltes start this process of efficient and personalized nutrition by showing them how much energy their body requires for health and performance. We explain with images and examples what this looks like in terms of quantity. And we help the athletes connect these targets to their sport goals. They may be hyperactive, but they care just as much about doing well in their sport as any other athlete and these steps help them to get there.

2) Young athletes with ADHD may have more difficulty planning ahead and organizing their eating and their schedule to ensure they are meeting their needs can be a challenge. Parental support and patience will be helpful here, as will establishing eating routines and supplying foods that are nutritious yet easy to gather and take on the road. One simple strategy is to make sure that athletes have some healthy snacks in their bags that they can eat in a pinch instead of heading to a vending machine or convenience store. Granola bars, trail mix and crackers are options that you can keep in a bag withouth worrying about spoilage. While apples, bananas, oranges, veggies, applesauce and yogurt are items that can be added to bags daily.

3) Medications used to treat ADHD often suppress appetite. Young athletes report that 'food tastes like nothing' and so they lose the desire to eat and the appetite that accompagnies taste. This can significantly impact performance and focus at practices or events in the afternoon and early evening as the athlete will have eaten nothing all day. Then, once meds wear off, they can find themselves binging, particularly on sweet snacks that provide both a quick energy fix and that tantalize the sweet tooth. Student atheltes facing this challenge can learn to eat by the clock instead of by hunger cues or cravings. Setting alarms and reminders can be a helpful tool. This strategy will help ensure they eat enough during the day to keep their energy reserves high and avoid blood sugar dips that lead to binging on sweet snacks later in the day.

4) Athletes can compartmentalize eating in their day into chunks. Ensure that breakfast, prior to taking medications is a larger chunk that incorporates protein, healthy fats and good quality complex carbohydrates. This will provide them both with a nutrient and energy foundation for the day as well as more balanced blood sugar and energy throughout. Instead of large meals mid-day when appetite is low, focus on small snacks more often. In the case of ahtletes who are significantly challenged to eat mid-day, encourage protein and meal replacement drinks that they can sip on periodically that provide needed energy and nutrients.

5) Later day eating chunks can be focussed around a healthy, well-balanced dinner and a protein rich snack before bedtime. This protein will be used while the body is at rest for recovery and will be particularly helpful if protein consumption in the day is lacking due to poor ogranization or suppressed appetite.

6) Student ahtletes with ADHD will require carbohydrates for energy similar to everyone else, but they can also pay particular attention to the fats they consume. Docosahexaenoic Acid, an omega-3 fatty acid that is found in cold-water fish, is crucial for healthy brain development. If fish is not a component of the diet, supplementation may be supportive for the overall health and maintenance of ADHD symptoms.

7) Many young ahtletes with ADHD have been found to have low levels of magnesium, iron and zinc. Addressing nutrient deficincies through diet and/or supplementation is critical both for decreasing ADHD symptoms and for enhancing performance in sport.

8) When it comes right down to it, nutrients nourish the cells and promote optimum functioning of the body and of the mind. Although there is no sound evidence to support that sugar or food dyes exacerbate ADHD symptoms, we know, long term, the health of the individual improves with a good quality, whole foods diet and good quality water. For student athletes, when energy demands for growth and activity are high this is even more critical. Helping young athletes with ADHD develop this understanding in addition to the unique strategies they require to fuel with good quality foods over highly processed ones will benefit them in the long run.

Remember that each young athlete is unique as are their nutritional needs. Despite this, one thing they all have in common, is that when they fuel well, the FEEL well, and they PLAY well.

We hope some of these strategies are helpful for you. Be sure to join the waitlist for our soon to be launched subsciption plan, The Student Athelte Nutrition Hub for more nutrition for student athletes content.

If you feel your athelte requires additional support, we would love to chat with you about that.

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