Like so many parents, Cynthia Lair felt a rush of excitement at her daughter's sporting events.
Realizing that her energy wouldn't affect the game's outcome, however, the Seattle resident poured her efforts into something she could change: the team's nutrition.
Lair's mission to supply healthy snacks and beverages soon expanded to drafting a game plan for sports-oriented nourishment. With colleague Scott Murdoch, the certified nutrition counselor wrote "Feeding the Young Athlete," published in 2002 and delivered in lecture format to a crowd of Rogue Valley parents and players shortly before this school year opened.
"It's just such a wonderful vehicle by which to solidify all the other health messages," says Murdoch, a registered dietician who holds a doctorate degree in human performance.
The seminar at Asante's Smullin Health Education Center opened with a crash-course in whole foods, a topic that Lair has taught for 18 years at institutions like Bastyr University, a Seattle college of natural medicine. No one's diet — athletes' included — requires special supplements in the form of pills, powders and bars, Lair says. Unprocessed, unadulterated, real foods provide all the nutrients humans need, and they don't contain fillers, preservatives or mysterious, man-made chemicals, she adds.
"We're not so set up to deal with food that's made in a laboratory."
Lecture-goers instead learned which foods give the most "bang for their buck" and left with a list of 20 healthful, portable foods. But a detailed discussion of exactly when to eat provided much of the framework for "Feeding the Young Athlete." Improving the timing of an athlete's nourishment is the most fixable component and the most overlooked, Lair says.
"Timing is everything."
Planning meals around sporting events dramatically increases an athlete's stamina and helps maintain performance levels after a game, Lair and Murdoch say. Players who follow the timetable aren't as susceptible to performance slumps or injuries, they add. Capitalizing on the post-game "glycogen window" — when muscles can refuel three times faster than usual — is particularly crucial. Ideally, a post-game snack should have a ratio of four parts carbohydrate to one part protein, such as a banana with two tablespoons of peanut butter.
"Carbohydrates are the preferred fuel for muscle energy," Lair says. "Protein's job is growth and repair."
And whole grains are the preferred form of carbohydrates, the duo say. Because the body stores very few carbohydrates in the form of readily available glycogen, athletes should meet that need rather than forcing their bodies to break down muscle for energy.
"To go on these low-carbohydrate kinds of regimens is really counterintuitive," says Murdoch, who competed in triathlons for 25 years. "Your body will look for other sources of fuel."
In the same vein, a high-protein diet isn't just a waste of time, given that protein can't be stored, Murdoch says. The body must eliminate excess protein by converting it to uric acid, a metabolic byproduct that, when present in elevated amounts, can compromise health. Contrary to Americans' propensity for linear thinking when it comes to nutrition, he adds, the body doesn't simply convert protein to muscle and fat to flab.
"Don't go crazy on protein," he says. "Your body cannot store it."
Protein shakes are among the vast array of cleverly marketed performance foods that aren't worth their price tag and, in many cases, the extra calories, Lair and Murdoch say. Water is the most suitable sports beverage and, if needed, can be flavored with a bit of 100-percent fruit juice, they say. With a few short cooking demonstrations, Lair aims to show parents that they can do better than all the packaged convenience foods.
Participant Diane Heider says she plans to use Lair's recipes in her culinary arts classes at Medford's Hedrick Middle School. Heider says she also would explain the differences between several types of sugars and give extra credit to students who looked up Lair's Web site, www.cookusinterruptus.com.
"A lot of kids are on their own," she says. "They want to eat right."
Heider grants students, many of them athletes, permission to bring a water bottle to class based on Lair's and Murdoch's assertion that kids should sip fluids all day, particularly on game day.
"Their bodies aren't big enough to take it all in at once," Heider says.
Unfortunately, says lecture-goer Margo Madden, many parents are still confused about what constitutes pure fruit juice. The cross-country coach for Medford's Grace Christian School says she's trying to wean her young runners off sports drinks and corn syrup-laden beverages, despite encountering worse on the practice field.
"I've actually had kids eating doughnuts."
Likely not the only adult in the crowd to take home a heightened awareness of health and nutrition, the 51-year-old Medford resident says, since the lecture, she has started reading ingredient labels in the supermarket again, a habit she gradually relinquished after her daughter, who suffered from food allergies, left home.
"It's making me more conscious," Madden says.
Although the lecture's premise is maximizing physical performance in the short term, the bigger message is overcoming barriers to eating well and encouraging a lifetime of healthy eating habits, Lair and Murdoch say. If parents expect to feed their young athlete properly, the whole family must participate.
"Start early, start young, get involved," Lair says.