Best snacks for athletes

If you google around the internet or look at social media, you’ll see a lot of focus on snacking for athletes. Ever wonder why?

Read on to find out why snacking is important, and get some ideas for the best snacks for athletes.

Importance of snacking

You wake up in the morning. You dash off to morning practice. You go to school. You have 20 minutes for lunch. Right after school you head to practice. You get home after your family has eaten dinner, have a shower, and immediately start homework.

Does this scenario sound familiar?

It can be hard to eat enough food at meals when you’re a teen athlete, so a lot more focus is put on snack foods.

What happens when you don’t eat enough, often enough

If you’re a recreational athlete, snacking to your appetite is probably just fine.

However, if your workouts are more intense, you may find yourself experiencing low blood sugar, low energy, or getting over-hungry at times that don’t work for you.

Low blood sugar

If you don’t eat enough, your body will use more of the sugar present in your bloodstream to feed its cells. Even if you’re eating enough overall throughout the day, it’s possible to use so much energy that your blood sugar becomes low in that moment. 

Symptoms of low blood sugar vary by person and by how low the blood sugar is, but include:

  • sweating, shaking and chills
  • low energy
  • racing heartbeat
  • irritability
  • hunger.

If you have any of these symptoms (and they’re not from a known medical condition like diabetes), eat something! If symptoms don’t improve, contact your medical provider.

Low energy

If your blood sugar becomes low or if you are not eating enough calories overall, your energy may be low. This could look like generally being tired, or it could be a more magnified reaction like bonking in a workout, practice or game.

If your blood sugar becomes low or if you are not eating enough calories overall, your energy may be low. This could look like generally being tired, or it could be a more magnified reaction like bonking in a workout, practice or game.

When a person does not eat enough to support their activity level, long term, serious health consequences can occur. An early sign of this is overall low energy. 

If this is you, definitely eat something in the moment but also look at your overall pattern of eating and find ways to increase your intake.

Feeling over-hungry

If you don’t eat enough, your hunger might sneak up on you and suddenly you’re starving! When this happens, it’s great to be able to eat, but what if you’re in the middle of class or somewhere else and simply can’t?

And sometimes when this happens, you feel so hungry that you eat a lot all at once. This is not a big deal, but the timing could be bad – like right before bed, so your sleep is disrupted, or right before exercise.

The only way to deal with these situation is prevention. Make sure you’re eating enough throughout the day, every day. This will require snacking!

But why snacking?

You can see why you need to eat enough. But why does this mean you need to snack? Can’t you just eat meals? 

No.

Not as a teen athlete.

Consistent energy

If you only eat three big meals per day, your blood sugar levels and energy levels might fluctuate a lot. This is not ideal for school or for athletics. 

Eating snacks on a regular basis will maintain these levels to keep your activity level and performance consistent.

Wacky teen schedules

I have a teen. I know what your days are like. Sometimes you don’t get to eat as much at a meal as you’d like. Sometimes you don’t get a meal when it’s “meal time.”

Between school, activities and work, something often interferes with your ability to eat enough.

overhead photos of a desktop covered with papers, pens, post it notes, a phone, and a hand writing

The best snacks for athletes typically take less time to prepare and eat than meals, making them the perfect solution.

Snacks for athletes – what to eat and when

Now we know why snacking is important. How do we know what to eat and when to eat it?

For an article that covers this idea, including meal timing, see this article.

What to eat

Determining what to eat for a snack can be as easy or as complicated as you’d like.

The best snacks for athletes contain protein

Including protein in a snack will allow your body to heal from the work you do while you exercise. It also provides blood sugar stability and the building blocks for muscle development.

Protein foods include nuts and nut butters, beans, tofu, some dairy-free yogurts and milks, meat alternatives, protein bars and shakes and powders.

The best snacks for athletes contain carbs

Including carbohydrates in a snack provides your body with energy. Simple carbs provide quick energy, while complex carbs can provide longer-term energy as well as some fiber.

Carbohydrate foods include fruits, vegetables, dairy-free yogurts and milks, grain foods like bread and rice and crackers, granola and granola bars, cereal and cereal bars.

Fats

Fat in food provides a better absorption for some nutrients as well as helping us to feel and stay full.

Fats are found in avocados, olives, nuts and nut butters, some dairy-free yogurts and milks, oils and margarine.

Snacks

When to eat

The timing of snacks can be very important (like a tournament day) or less important (like a rest day). Let’s see what makes sense!

Before a game or practice

This is when you need quick energy. 

If you have an hour or two before go-time, consider something with carbs and protein: a protein bar and piece of fruit, a small cup of yogurt and berries, marinated tofu cubes and carrot sticks.

If it’s immediately before you need to start, stick with simple carbohydrates and small amounts: fruit gummies, sports drink, small box of raisins.

After a game or practice

Ideally, you will get a meal within a couple of hours of exercise.

However, you should also snack! Now is the time for more protein, complex carbs, and fat.

Ideas include: chocolate milk, oatmeal and fruit, crackers and peanut butter, trail mix.

During a game or practice

You don’t want to have to work hard at digestion. Stick with sports drinks, fruit gummies, energy chews or gels.

Long tournament days

Here is where you want to be strategic. I plan to write an entire post about this, but for now: look at your longest breaks, and plan to eat pre-game snacks then. During shorter breaks, stick with simple carbs. Then, at the end of your day, plan for a large recovery meal.

Rest days

On rest days, stick to a traditional three-meal, three-snack schedule and eat to appetite. On these days, I like to think of a planned snack as something with two components. So, nut butter on crackers, or yogurt with fruit, or tortilla chips and salsa.

When is okay to just eat what I want?

It’s always **okay** to eat what you want. But you need to use some good decision making skills to determine what “want” really means.

Let’s say you’re craving nachos and a banana split. 

If it’s 20 minutes before a game, you’re probably not going to perform your best.

If it’s 20 minutes before bed, you might have a hard time falling or staying asleep.

If it’s 20 minutes before family dinner, you might find that eating something that big beforehand isn’t appropriate for your family dynamic.

If it’s an off-day or many hours before a game, this choice might not support your athleticism perfectly, but I’m not going to tell you not to eat it. Eat the food.

pretzels

What if I don’t have time to snack?

You do have time to snack.

This is the beauty of the snack. It really doesn’t take much time at all. The time is in the planning.

Make sure you have snacks in your school bag or gym bag at all times. This way, if your only chance to eat is while walking from one class to the next, you have something available!

(Please don’t dribble food all over the floors as you do this.)

Take time on the weekend to package and stash handfuls or pretzels or crackers or popcorn or dry cereal, granola bars, trail mix, dried fruit. 

Bottom line

Here are the important pieces to keep in mind when planning the best snacks for athletes:

  • Snacking is important for everyone, but especially teen athletes.
  • Plan to snack.
  • Snack on simple carbs and protein before exercise.
  • Snack on complex carbs, fat, and protein after exercise.
  • Keep easy snacks on hand.

About the Author

Sarah Skovran, RDN LD ACE-PT, is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, ACE certified personal trainer, mom of a teen athlete, and is mostly vegan. She writes about sports nutrition, plant based eating, and adolescent nutrition at Plant Powered Teens, and sees in-person clients at her private practice in Maine.

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