Parents who are bombarded with conflicting messages about nutrition with regard to weight management, are often misinformed about what foods their children require for good health and/or the demands of regular physical activity and athletic competition. Poor nutrition, however, is not complex. The guidelines we provide here can help parents and athletes understand how to maintain a healthy diet that will help to maximize performance and stay fit. These guidelines are excellent building blocks, not just for student athletes, but also for a lifetime of health eating.
Young athletes use a lot of energy and require a good balanced diet to maintain strength, speed, agility and mental acuity. In order to maximize performance, it is critical that parents and athletes are knowledgeable about the proper way to eat healthy. Here is some very important information that will help any young athlete gain and keep a competitive edge.
Energy-calories in vs. calories out: According to the 2002 Dietary Reference Intakes, active pre-teen females (ages 6 to 12) require anywhere from 1600 to 2200 calories per day, while males of the same age range need 1900 to 25400 calories per day. More time spent in physical activity means more calories and other nutrients needed to support the demands of physical activity as well as normal growth and development. Luckily, most young athletes will naturally increase their food intake to accommodate the day-to-day nutrient needs of their sports participation.
Carbohydrates: calories in vs. calories out: While many adults shun carbohydrates in the battle of the bulge, carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for muscles during exercise. Children should be offered carbohydrate-rich foods at each meal and snack. Think pasta, rice, whole grain cereals, breads, tortillas, bagels, low-fat muffins, granola bars, crackers, pretzels, yogurt, milk, fruit and 100% fruit juices. Be sure to include some whole-grain varieties in your child’s repertoire (like brown rice, whole wheat breads, whole grain cereals, etc.) to help promote overall good health.
Protein-the building block: While protein is important for building muscle, proper immune function and hormone production, excess protein that replaces much-needed carbohydrates can actually impair athletic performance. Youth athletes get all the protein they need when eating a carbohydrate-rich, well balanced and varied diet. Good sources of protein include chicken, turkey, eggs, milk, yogurt, dried beans and legumes and lean meats.
Fat-not too much, but not too little: Some fat in the diet is necessary for good health and is also used as a source of energy during exercise and recovery. Healthy fats can be found in nuts and seeds, peanut butter, olive oil, canola oil and fatty fish, like salmon. Unhealthy fats are found in animal-based foods such as high-fat dairy products and fatty meats, the tropical oils (coconut oil, palm or palm kernel oil) and trans fats, which are found in many commercially prepared foods-anything with “partially hydrogenated” listed on the ingredient label.
Hydrate- morning, noon and night: Child athletes have special fluid needs due, in part, to the fact that children respond differently to exercise than adults do. For example, children have a lower sweat rate and a greater relative body surface area, so they produce more heat than adults but are not as efficient at transferring this heat from the working muscles to the skin. In addition, children take longer to acclimatize, making them more susceptible to extreme environmental conditions. Non-carbonated sports drinks containing carbohydrates (sugar) and electrolytes (sodium and potassium) are recommended to help active children stay hydrated, particularly for endurance exercise and high-intensity exercise and specially while exercising in the heat. Young athletes should be encouraged to drink four to eight ounces every 15-20 minutes. Children should also be weighed before and after exercise, and drink at least 16-24 ounces of fluid for every pound lost.
Eat often-pre exercise, during exercise and post exercise: Active children need to eat often to fuel their small bodies for physical activity-a small meal or snack every 3-4 hours is a good rule of thumb. Pay particular attention to pre-exercise snacks to help provide fuel for physical activity, as well as the post- exercise snack and/or meal to help speed recovery. The pre-exercise snack should be high in carbohydrate and lower in protein, fat and fiber so that it’s easily digestible and well toldrated. Suggestions include granola bars, cereal snack mix, or a raisin bagel. The post-exercise snack or meal should give a moderate dose of protein in addition to carbohydrates to help maximize glycogen stores and repair muscle damage. Some ideas include fruit yogurt and banana, a turkey and cheese sandwich or spaghetti with lean meat sauce. To find out what your young athlete tolerates best, experiment during training, not competition.
Committee on Dietary Reference Intakes, Institute of Medicine. Dietary Referance Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. Washington, D.C: National Academies Press, 2002.
Petrie HJ, Stover EA, Horswill CA. Nutritional concerns for the child and adolescent competitor. Nutrition 2004;20(7-8):620-631
Unnithan VB, Goulopoulou S. Nutrition for the pediatric athlete. Curr Sports Med Rep 2004;3(4):206-211
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