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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Chow Line: Teen athletes need more carbohydrates (10/5/12)

October 5, 2012

My son started playing football this year. He says he “hits a wall” during practice and needs more protein. How much protein does he need during the football season?

It’s likely your son needs to pay more attention to carbohydrates than protein.

Most people need just 6 or 7 ounces of protein a day from a variety of sources, including lean meat, poultry, seafood, milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, beans, nuts and seeds. Athletes may need a little more to build and repair muscle tissue, but not much.

When athletes “hit a wall,” what’s happening is that their body has run out of carbohydrates to use for energy. The body first uses blood glucose, but there’s only a certain amount available for immediate energy needs. Then it turns to its supplies of glycogen, the form of carbohydrate stored in muscle and the liver. With less-intense physical activity, the body uses both glycogen and fat. With higher-intensity activities, including football, the body primarily uses glycogen stored in muscle.

Your son may need to eat more carbohydrates throughout the day to build up glycogen supplies. When adding carbohydrates to your son’s diet, remember that half of all grains consumed should be whole grains. Whole grains include oatmeal, whole-grain bread, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice and popcorn. Potatoes, corn, lima beans and other high-starch vegetables are also good sources of carbohydrates.

In addition, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends eating a carbohydrate-rich snack or meal three to four hours before exercise, along with a small amount of protein to help build and repair muscle tissue. The food should be low in fat and fiber to make sure it digests easily and quickly.

Then, 30 to 60 minutes before the activity, eating a piece of fruit, drinking a sports drink or even enjoying a few jelly beans, low-fat candy or orange juice diluted with half water will top off the body’s blood glucose and glycogen stores. Energy drinks with large amounts of caffeine or other stimulants aren’t recommended for teenagers because of the health risks they pose.

Your son also needs to make sure he stays hydrated. Water carries oxygen and glucose to muscles, helping produce energy. He should drink:

  • Two cups of water or a sports drink two to three hours before an activity.
  • One to 1.5 cups about 15 minutes beforehand.
  • A half-cup to 1.5 cups every 15 minutes during the activity, without overdoing it.

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1044, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Dan Remley, field specialist for Ohio State University Extension in family nutrition and wellness.


Martha Filipic
Dan Remley