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Nutrition for Ice Hockey: A Parent's Guide

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The role of nutrition in sports performance cannot be ignored.  Eating the proper foods serves as a performance enhancer, recovery stimulator and has a profound impact on body composition and fuel efficiency during exercise.  We are what we eat, and poor food choices may have a direct correlation on the results we seek both on and off the ice.  During the course of the competitive hockey season athletes train at Donskov Strength and Conditioning twice/week.  That is NOT a lot of time when we consider that there are one hundred and sixty eight hours in a seven-day workweek.  It doesn't take a PhD in mathematics to figure out 1.19% of the week is spent in the weight room, leaving 98.81% of the time sleeping, eating, practicing, playing hockey and attending school.  The glue that binds all of these activities is will power and good decision-making. The purpose of this article is to educate parents on the importance of proper nutrition during the hockey season.  This article was written for you because more often than not, you are directly responsible for food preparation, grocery shopping and packing on the road.  So where do we start?  What constitutes a good meal?  What should my son or daughter eat before a game?  After a game? This article serves to answer these questions and provide practical solutions sprinkled in with a little bit of science.

The Meal 

When it comes to preparing a meal we need to focus on nutrient dense foods.  This simply means that the food is packed with both vitamins and minerals.  These micronutrients are responsible for bone growth, tissue repair and overall system health and maintenance.  Vegetables and organic proteins fall into this category.  We should also look at minimizing foods that don't offer these benefits.  Added sugars and refined grains are examples of what we call empty calories.  The goal is to fill your plate with the former, and use the latter sparingly if at all.  So what compromises a good plate?  Let’s take a closer look at guideline number one.

 

Guideline #1:  Anchor your Plate with Protein (Grow Food)

The demands of the hockey season are grueling, coupled with both high volumes of skating, and close to forty touch points in the gym.  These events break the body down and are catabolic in nature.  In order to offset these losses, adequate protein should be ingested.  Protein provides an anabolic, or growth, stimulus and serves to repair the body from the demands of activity.  When you think of preparing a plate for you child, think protein first; choices such as fish, chicken, pork and beef all fit into this category.  A simple rule of thumb is the less legs the better.  Fish is a fantastic option, followed by chicken and finally beef and pork.  This has to do with the profile of essential fatty acids found in these foods. Preparation should be grilled or baked, not fried.   

Serving Size:  The palm of your hand with fingers spliced.  Athletes may have 1-2 servings per meal. 

The Science:  Protein has a satiating effect on the body.  This simply means that it appeases hunger and puts the brain in a “full” state.  Protein has an inhibitory effect on Ghrelin (a hormone that stimulates hunger) and a facilitory effect on PYY (a gut hormone that reduces hunger). 

Possible Choices:  Fish, chicken, pork, beef, turkey, lean steak, low fat yogurt, eggs and Almond Milk.

 

Guideline #2:  Make wise carbohydrate choices (Go food)

By far the biggest mistakes we see young athletes make are poor choices regarding carbohydrates.  Think of carbohydrates as go food, as glucose (the breakdown of carbohydrates into simple sugar) is the preferred fuel source for the body.  The problem is not all carbohydrates are treated equal.  Potato chips, white pasta, added sugar and refined grains, hold little nutritional value when compared to green leafy vegetables and fruit, however, both are considered carbohydrates.  Dr. Michael Roussell put together what he termed “The Hierarchy of Carbohydrates” which serves as a fantastic tool for parents in choosing appropriate foods.

Hierarchy of Carbs

  • Added Sugars
  • Refined Grains
  • Whole Grains
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Green Vegetables

***The goal is to cut foods from the top down.  Soft drinks, chips, white bread, and pasta should be replaced with fruits, vegetables and greens***

Serving Size:  For foods at the bottom of the list = One fist. Athletes may have 1-2 servings per meal. For foods at the top of the list = One cupped palm.

The Science:  There are such things as essential proteins and essential fats.  This means that our body cannot produce them without the consumption of food.  However, there is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate.  Our bodies have the ability to rely on fat for fuel, and the ability to produce glucose in the liver from protein and other substrates in a process called gluconeogenesis.  Bottom line: choose your carbohydrates wisely.  The goal is to have vegetables with every meal and skip the ice cream more often than not. 

Possible Choices:  Spinach, lettuce, green beans, onions, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, brown rice, and oatmeal.

 

Guideline #3:  Get your Fat

News flash…fat is a good thing.  In fact, we can’t survive without it.   Foods such as avocado, almonds, walnuts, cashews, natural peanut butter and almond butter are great options.  In addition fish oil is another fantastic choice.  Fat helps regulate brain function, controls blood clotting, reduces inflammation, is used as energy and aids in the absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K.     

Serving Size:  The size of a thumb. Athletes may have 1-2 servings per meal. 

The Science:  Omega 3 fatty acids are a major component of cell structureEPA and DHA found in fish oil, tuna, white fish, egg yolks and walnuts have been shown to increase skeletal muscle blood flow (Type I) and reduce inflammation.  In addition these fats counteract the typical imbalance of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fats that are seen in typical Western diets. 

Possible Choices:  Mixed nuts, almond butter, fish oil, avocado, olive oil and flaxseed oil. 

 

Implications for Ice Hockey    

Pregame Meal (Three or More Hours before Game)

This should be a meal that consists of a nonfired protein and vegetable source. Foods, such as fish, chicken, vegetables (peppers, broccoli), and a loaded salad are all good choices. Make wise carbohydrate choices at this time. An easy way to remember good options is the phrase: “Think whole-grain, brown and grown close to the ground.” These foods are nutrient dense and have a minimal impact on blood sugar levels. Serving size should be the size of a cupped palm. Foods that elevate blood sugar levels (e.g., white bread, white pasta, and white potatoes) should be avoided. These foods are empty calories (minimal nutrients). The postgame meal should look very similar, as these foods serve as the foundation of healthy eating and elevated performance.

Immediately After Game

Replenish (refuel), repair (protein), and rehydrate (water). This is a great time for a postgame protein shake with additional carbohydrates. Chocolate milk may also be a choice as the ratio of protein to carbohydrate serves as a postgame regenerator.

Traveling Snacks

Have a plan, work the plan, and plan for the unexpected. Snacks during travel may consist of trail mix (no chocolate), veggies, fresh fruit, almond butter, whole-grain bagels, mixed nuts, beef jerky, sports bars (Power Crunch, Balance, Dale’s Raw Bars), and low-fat Greek yogurt. These items can be purchased at the grocery store prior to departure or along the way. When it comes to snacks, avoid words such as creamy, spicy, and fried.

There is no one best food, one best nutritional plan or one best way.  The goal is not to provide absolutes, but options.  In addition, common practice does not always equate to best practice.  During my playing days our post game meals consisted of pizza and this was at the professional level of the game.  Keep it simple, eat real F.O.O.D (fruits and vegetables, organic lean proteins, omega 3 fatty acids, and drink water) and avoid C.R.A.P. (carbonated drinks, refined sugar, artificial sweeteners, and processed food).  After all simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. 

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