You are what you eat: High school athletes opting for better nutrition

Amanda Gerla

Portland High sophomore Aidan McGowan found that changing his diet was a key to adding 20 pounds of muscle. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Aidan McGowan played for the Portland High junior varsity football team as a freshman last year. Soon after the season ended, he went to a gym in Scarborough to find the key to building strength so he could make the varsity as sophomore.

The answer wasn’t just what he did with his body. It was what he put into it. Working with a nutritionist and personal trainer, he went with a different meal plan. Out were Cheez-Its, chicken nuggets and canned food. In were better proteins and carbohydrates – egg whites, turkey and whole wheat bread.

Twenty pounds of muscle later, from 140 to 160 pounds, McGowan said he feels the difference.

“Usually, before, when I’d wake up I’d feel all tired and sluggish and all that, and it would take my body a couple of hours to actually wake up,” said McGowan, a running back and defensive back for the Bulldogs. “Now I’m waking up better, feeling a lot better, playing a lot better. And in my workouts I’m getting stronger, and I have way more energy throughout.”

Windham senior Abbey Thornton, last year’s SMAA Offensive Player of the Year, remembers skimping on meals as a freshman, thinking it would help her get in shape, but she felt sluggish during the day and lacked focus in games. “Everyone thinks, to get stronger and bigger, you have to go to the gym. But it’s more what you eat, which I didn’t realize.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Veteran coaches are noticing stories like McGowan’s as more high school athletes contemplate what they eat, how much they eat and how often. Coaches say they are getting more questions from athletes about foods that can help their performance, and in turn the coaches are incorporating discussions about nutrition into their instruction.

“Kids are exposed a little bit more to if you eat right and eat healthy, it affects your performance,” said Deb LeBel, who is in her 12th season as the Windham High girls’ soccer coach.

LeBel has noticed the difference in food choices by her players before practices and games after school.

“(Before) some of them might have shown up hungry because they didn’t like what was offered (at lunch), there weren’t as many choices,” she said. “They might show up with a bag of chips or some cookies, whereas now I definitely see fruit way more often, or a healthy sandwich.”

Ben Raymond, who has been coaching at Cape Elizabeth High since 1994, also has noticed the change in attitudes toward nutrition. No longer are players opting for dinner at the snack shack before night games, he said.

“They’re coming with food that’s prepared for them, whether it’s as simple as a bagel with peanut butter on it and protein bars, and things like that,” said Raymond, who coaches boys’ soccer, swimming and boys’ lacrosse. “It’s not a bag of Doritos and get something at the snack shack to go with it.”

Even team dinners, which have historically included trays of pasta, have taken on a different look.

“Teams are much smarter about team dinners,” Raymond said. “You’re not ordering 60 pizzas for the team. You’re thinking ahead a little more.”

“I think team dinners have become healthier,” LeBel said, “with that protein component.”

ATHLETES MAKE CHANGES

Portland High sophomore Aidan McGowan, center, says he has noticed the difference since he changed to a more nutritious diet. “Now I’m waking up better, feeling a lot better, playing a lot better.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Eating healthier isn’t easy. McGowan learned that once he started visiting a nutritionist and began his new diet. Egg sandwiches with three ounces of ham after waking up. Protein bars two hours later. A sandwich with six ounces of turkey for lunch. Rice cakes with Greek yogurt two hours after that, followed by eight to 12 ounces of protein for dinner.

It is a lot of food – and, for the most part, served pretty bland.

“I’d have to sneak in (protein) bars and stuff in class,” he said. “It’s not the best (tasting). I don’t really eat for the flavor, really. I just try to eat for fuel.”

Then there were the real sacrifices.

“My mom would go get Tony’s doughnuts, and I’d see it downstairs and I’d have to avoid it,” McGowan said. “When I’d first start doing it, my friends at school would go out (for lunch), and they’d ask questions. ‘Why don’t you come out?’ I’d have to explain to them what I’m doing. They’re like ‘Oh my God, you’re just a kid.’ ”

McGowan, however, likes the results. He’s eased up somewhat – a taco bowl might replace the bland turkey sandwich, or an English muffin with peanut butter goes in place of the rice cakes – but he doesn’t budge in one area.

“Right now, I focus on getting a lot of protein in,” he said. “In all my meals, there’s protein. I pretty much know I’m getting around 200 grams-plus (roughly seven ounces) of protein each day.”

Other athletes have taken their own nutritional paths, with positive results. Abbey Thornton remembers skimping on meals during her freshman year, believing eating less to be the path to being in shape. She felt sluggish during the school day, and lacked energy and focus during games.

“I’d show up, and between games I’d get a headache,” said Thornton, a senior midfielder on the Windham girls’ soccer team. “Before, I thought less was better. I didn’t allow myself to eat carbs and bread. I used to think that was a bad thing.”

Abbey Thornton is a senior midfielder on the Windham High girls’ soccer team. “Everyone thinks, to get stronger and bigger, you have to go to the gym,” she says. “But it’s more what you eat, which I didn’t realize.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

She revamped her diet after seeing a nutritionist during her sophomore year. Now it includes peanut butter, oats, Greek yogurt parfaits and lunches of turkey and cheese on sourdough. Protein bars, pretzels and hummus are snacks in case she gets, in her words, “hangry.”

“I make sure I eat a good breakfast. I used to never prep foods, but now I make food in advance and have meal preps; that way I always have stuff,” said Thornton, the SMAA Offensive Player of the Year last season. “Everyone thinks, to get stronger and bigger, you have to go to the gym. But it’s more what you eat, which I didn’t realize.”

Eliza Doyon, a sophomore midfielder on the Biddeford field hockey team, used to skip breakfast regularly during her freshman year.

“I got a lot more tired on the field,” she said. “I needed to ask for subs a lot more.”

Doyon visited the Sports Performance Center in Saco before this season, and decided to change her routine. Breakfast is never missed now. Calories come early in the morning, in the form of bagels or avocado toast. Snacks of granola or smoothie bowls with whey protein mixed in give her the strength for practice and games.

And before she takes the field, she drinks celery juice to give her an energy boost. “It doesn’t sound very appealing, but it doesn’t actually taste bad,” she said.

“It was definitely tough,” she said of making changes. “I did enjoy Red Bulls and everything. I drank those before my games last year, and they didn’t help me.”

Grace Brackett, a senior on the Marshwood field hockey team, started paying attention to her diet as a sophomore. She enjoys smoothies with spinach and avocado in them, and she said she eats more eggs, nuts and whole grains.

It didn’t take long to notice a change.

“Recovering after workouts, I feel like it goes a lot smoother when I have healthy nutrients. I definitely (have) a lot less muscle pains and strains,” she said. “I’ve gotten to the point where I realize it’s an everyday thing. It’s not like you eat well one day, and you’re good for the week. You’ve got to eat well every day to keep that consistency.”

COACHES TAKE NOTICE

Oxford Hills football coach Mark Soehren said proper eating used to be largely an afterthought among high school athletes.

“Most of them are just eating the food they get in front of them, and that tastes good,” he said. “But it’s certainly changed. I think everyone used to do that.”

As times have changed, coaches have started to incorporate nutrition into their education.

“When I first started, my conversations around food and nutrition happened when I was teaching health class. It wasn’t so much in terms of coaching,” said Joe Rafferty, the Kennebunk High football coach since 1979.

“Over the last 10 years, I’ve tried to talk to the kids about it,” said Rafferty, who is a physical education teacher at the school. “Often times we just assumed it, or we left it up to families. … The kids are seeking, ‘How can I get better?’ If we can include in our conversation pieces of the nutrition and the value of the nutrition, I know that’s what I’ve done. We coaches have had more exposure to it.”

Joe Rafferty has been the football coach at Kennebunk High since 1979. Over the past 10 years, he says, he’s made discussions about nutrition part of his instruction. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Soehren said there’s “no question” nutritional knowledge has become a part of coaching, and that there’s a correlation – the kids who are most serious about working out are the ones who ask the most questions about food.

“If they’re lifting (weights), they’re typically looking at that sort of stuff. But if they’re not, I would say that’s not a priority,” Soehren said. “I would say there is more focus and discussion about nutrition, but it varies from kid to kid whether they’re really taking that to heart.”

Trainers and dieticians have noticed more of an interest in nutrition. Alexis Jones, a registered dietician based out of South Portland, spoke to the Cheverus field hockey team about nutrition benefits during the preseason. She said she’s hearing more young athletes ask questions about how they should eat.

“Even in the last year, the amount of athletes that I’ve seen has pretty drastically picked up,” she said. “Last year, I had a couple of teams reach out, but this year I’ve had a good handful of high school coaches that have reached out specifically to do some discussions or team talks around how to fuel your body well for performance.”

Part of that nutrition education has involved finer points of food as nourishment – when it’s better to eat carbohydrate-rich foods versus protein, the differences between macronutrients and micronutrients, and the benefits of healthy fats.

“One of the things that gets lost among athletes is carbohydrate intake,” said Cape Elizabeth football coach Sean Green. “We talk about, throughout the day, trying to have some rice or pasta, good carbohydrates that they’ll be able to burn and utilize during practice.”

Mike Foley, a personal trainer and nutritionist who owns Foley’s Fitness Center in Scarborough, assisted McGowan, the Portland High football player. Foley said athletes now have a better understanding of nutrition than in the past.

“A lot of times, they’d (have) a candy bar and go ‘Oh, the sugar will give you energy,’ ” Foley said. “People are aware of ‘Look, we need carbohydrates to give us energy. We need protein to recover. We need good fats to give us stable energy and keep blood sugar levels even.’ And it’s not so much what you eat right before a game. It’s how you eat all week.”

Briana Bruinooge, a certified personal trainer and registered dietician based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, said she still sees high school athletes falling short in their nutrition.

“A common theme is that most high school athletes skip breakfast, either due to time or they didn’t get enough sleep and they sleep in, or they might be getting a school lunch and it’s too small,” she said. “Fueling around school can be difficult for high school athletes as well.”

More wholesome ingredients are also more expensive, and healthy meals require time to prepare. For some athletes, it’s a time commitment they don’t make.

“It’s just more expensive,” Soehren said. “It’s cheap to go to McDonald’s.”

Making the change, however, can be worthwhile. Over at Portland High, McGowan can attest to that.

“My friends, every day they go out and get pizza, all that stuff. At first, it was pretty hard for me to stay away from that stuff,” he said. “But I’ve gotten used to it now. I’m not feeling the urge to eat anything like that. I just don’t find the benefits in it.”


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