February 20, 2020

You Are What You Eat - Why eating the right food is a recipe for success in youth football

Getting the balance right when it comes to nutrition is crucial for youngsters focused on forging a career in sport. The Under-16s competing at Al Kass International Cup will have long ago learned that their diet is fundamentally important if they want to pursue a career in the game.

Twelve teams from 11 nations around the world are participating in the 2020 competition, and all of them have strict guidelines when it comes to nutrition for their players. In recent years, sports science has become a burgeoning industry, with nutrition at its heart. Experts have identified the healthiest types of food for budding footballers – and for the wider population. Broadly, these foods fall into four main groups:

Grain: (e.g. bread, rice, pasta and cereals) These provide carbohydrates, and are easily broken down by the body to produce energy. Wholegrains found in the likes of bran and wholemeal bread also assist by providing fibre, minerals and vitamins.

Fruit and vegetables: These are rich in minerals and vitamins, which are needed for the body’s growth.
Dairy: (e.g. milk, yoghurt and cheese) These are especially important for growing children, as they contain calcium and Vitamin D. Both are vital for muscle and bone development. It has been noted that teenagers who do not have enough calcium in their diets can experience cramp and chest wall spasms during exercise, so dairy products are particularly important for those keen on sport.

Protein: (e.g. beans, eggs, fish, poultry and meat) Pivotal to building muscles, proteins also contain iron which forms a vital part of our bloodstream. Low levels of iron causes tiredness and fatigue, which can only lead to a poor performance on the sporting field.

In contrast to these four food types, the ones to generally avoid are fats, sugar and oils as they provide little or no nutritional value. That said, although takeaway burgers are often dismissed as ‘junk food’, active children will not come to harm enjoying an occasional one, as they are likely to burn off the excess calories they contain.

However, long gone are the days when youngsters would skip breakfast, chomp a chocolate bar, munch through a bag of chips and swig a sugar-saturated fizzy drink before they stepped on to the football field. Nowadays, the precision of preparing for a game is as crucial as what happens once players step across the white touchline.

A detailed look at young footballers’ diets before, during and after tournaments carried out by US Youth Soccer has revealed platefuls of interesting data.

The survey noted that young players who eat a wide range of foodstuffs should not need to use dietary supplements, as such items do not provide a shortcut to success. Significantly, the study pointed out that, as carbohydrates are the key to providing energy, they should be optimised during the days leading up to - and on the day of - competition. Specifically, players should overload on carbohydrates such as pasta and beans 48 hours before a match takes place.

Beverages that might cause dehydration – notably caffeinated drinks like coffee, cola and juice with a high sugar content – should be avoided, as should fried and greasy food, researchers said.

And, on game days, the study advised that the stomach should be close to empty at the time of activity for optimal performance. Helpful guides reveal the time it takes for foodstuffs to be digested from simple carbohydrates (1-2 hours) to complex carbohydrates (2-4 hours) and fats (4-6 hours) to proteins (6-8 hours).

The recovery process will then kick-in until it is time to prepare for the next contest. For the young players competing at Al Kass International Cup, the dietary cycle is critical because the games come thick and fast. The team able to maintain the highest energy levels has a significant advantage, and that is why nutritional discipline is now as important as tactical discipline.

Al Kass Daily News spoke to Ricardo Pinto, a Sports Dietician at Aspetar, the world’s leading specialised orthopaedic and sports medicine hospital, to find out why a player’s diet is so important.

1. “The precision of preparing for a game is as crucial as what happens once players step across the white touchline” – how important is nutrition along with physical training before a game?
While training is important, we know that football is a sport that requires different types of efforts. And different types of efforts require different sources of energy. This is where we mainly talk about carbohydrates, which is the most important source of energy for footballers. The ability to manipulate the food intervention accordingly for match preparation, the actual match and then match recovery is part of a winning strategy. Along with training, a recovery strategy and many other aspects involved in football. To sum up, nutrition is part of a strategy that can help a player express his or her full potential.

The key for footballers is a balanced diet. Not all the players know this so we have to educate them on the benefits of a balanced diet. 

Though sugar is not usually recommended, during the match/pre-match/just after the match, we would recommend food or drink with a sugar content. Fruits such as bananas (because of the fructose content) – the more simple sugars are rapidly absorbed, or sports drinks, which are mostly carbohydrates, water, sodium, electrolytes, to help keep performance, or even certain kinds of chewing gum.

Post-Match Recovery: During recovery we must consider the muscle itself and the energy content of the muscle. For recovery, we usually provide the players with a mix of protein and most importantly carbohydrates. 

Right now in the Al Kass Tournament, we have one day to recover before we play our next match. Physiologically, football players need at least 48 to 72 hours to completely restore or recover completely. It’s a big effort when we play with only 1 day to recover. At time when there isn’t even a full day to recover, the physical demand is intense. We practice the 3 Rs for recovery: refuel (energy) – rehydrate (water + electrolytes) - repair (protein)

2. These players are young and they are burning off what they eat. What harm can it do if they eat a high calorie diet?
The footballers need to meet the demands on them. Carbohydrates especially complex carbs; pasta, sweet potatoes, rice, quinoa – and other kinds. Plus  protein; to optimize their muscle function, they need 4 protein intakes per day. They also need micronutrients and vitamins found mainly in fruits and vegetables. 

“Eat a rainbow every day”! The more colorful your plate the more variety of vitamins and minerals you will have. This ties back to having a diet rich in variety. Of course, good fats are important. 

3. Who is in charge of their menus?
As the sports dietician for the team, I’m in charge of deciding the menus according to the plan of the team for that specific game or the specific tournament. I manipulate the menus according to what will be demanded of the players each day e.g. a light training session/a game with stress and other variables/a hard training session. Playing in Qatar in April/May, and later when the weather is hot and humidity very high, especially June/July/August, even through to September and October, even though we train in the evening, the humidity can be at 70% or 80%, and sweat levels are off the roof. It’s even more important to rehydrate. If players are dehydrated, the player’s performance will be poor.