Fueling Up for Competition
All children need nutritionally balanced meals for healthy growth and development, but the needs are even greater for those involved in rigorous athletics. To ensure young athletes receive proper nutrition and hydration to fuel their growing bodies and sustain them during activities, consider these seven expert suggestions.
1. Count on carbs.
Carbohydrates are the macronutrient that fuels physical activity, so make sure your child has a consistent source of carbs every day, says registered dietician Sharon Collison, who specializes in youth sports nutrition and is a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "Whole grains are a better choice [than refined grains], because they are rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals and take longer to digest, which enhances satiety and prevents a drop in blood sugar. Carb loading isn't necessary unless the activity lasts more than 90 minutes. Even then it should be done under the guidance of a sports nutritionist."
2. Be smart about supplements.
Amy Barausky, a registered dietician at Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., says if your child eats the recommended number of servings found in the Food Guidance System, he will get the right amount of vitamins and minerals. "Vitamin and mineral supplements are a good idea and can be used as an insurance policy. But parents should never single dose or mega dose any vitamin or mineral without consulting their pediatrician or sports nutritionist because it could do more harm than good," she says.
3. Bank on a balance.
"An appropriate diet for young athletes includes getting adequate complex carbohydrates, a lean protein source, and plenty of fruits and vegetables," says Roberta Anding, director of sports nutrition at Texas Children's Hospital and a registered dietician. "During dinner, your child's plate should have 50 percent fruits and vegetables, 25 percent whole grains and 25 percent protein. If he wants a second plate, let him pick out his favorite food and don't worry about over-consumption. Many very athletic children don't get enough calories. If he's hungry, let him eat."
4. Eat often.
"Young athletes need three meals and at least two snacks each day to keep energy levels consistent and meet their growth and development needs," Collison says. "Plan a snack or meal every three to four hours. Snacks should have a protein and a grain or a fruit. The protein acts as an anchor to stabilize the blood sugar."
5. Plan for food to go.
"Think ahead on how you can provide healthy food options in the car. And remember, nutrition doesn't have to be a hot meal," Anding says. "You can do just as well with peanut butter on whole grain bread and dried fruit, or frozen chocolate milk that's been thawed out in the cooler. Sports foods marketed toward athletes can fill a niche when you need energy on the go; they should not, however, replace other foods."
6. Eat before and after.
Although children should have carbs and a moderate amount of protein before an event, they need to know what their stomachs can tolerate, Barausky says. "Some kids can eat right before an activity and be fine; others need at least an hour for their food to digest. What's most important is that kids not exercise on an empty stomach."
Anding adds, "After an activity, there is a 20- to 30-minute window when the body is most readily able to replenish glycogen, the stored form of carbs. If your child can't eat right away, offer something liquid - chocolate milk, a smoothie or a sports drink."
7. Hype up hydration.
"The amount of fluids a child athlete needs will depend largely on the climate, his age and size, body chemistry and the level of activity he's engaged in," Anding says. "I tell elementary-school athletes, 'When you pass by the water fountain at school, take four big gulps.' That's about 4 ounces. For a middle school child, I say eight. Offer fluids with every snack and meal. And if your child isn't taking a water break during practice, speak up."
Collison says a sports drink like Gatorade is good for activities lasting more than 90 minutes. If it's less than that, water is fine. "Chocolate milk is an excellent recovery drink since it supplies fluid, carbohydrates and sodium and tastes great," she says. "Thirst isn't always a good indicator of dehydration, but urine color is. If it's a clear straw color your child is probably hydrated; if it's dark yellow, he needs to drink more."
Denise Morrison Yearian is a mother and former magazine editor.
For more information
Check out the following resources for more information about proper nutrition for youth athletes:
- Clinical Sports Nutrition by Louise Burke and Vicki Deakin (McGraw-Hill, 2006)
- Feeding the Young Athlete: Sports Nutrition Made Easy for Players and Parents by Cynthia Lair (Moon Smile Press, 2002)
- Fuel for Young Athletes: Essential Foods and Fluids for Future Champions by Ann Litt (Human Kinetics, 2003)
- Moms Team, www.momsteam.com
Balancing the scales on weight-controlled sports
When children participate in sports where weight loss or gain is emphasized, they may feel pressured. If a child is asked to lose or put on weight, registered dietician Amy Barausky suggests families consult a youth sports nutritionist so the goals can be achieved in a safe and effective manner.
"Weight gain and loss should be done in the off-season under the guidance of a registered dietitian, so kids are going into the sport in a healthy weight class that is appropriate for their height and build," she says. "Talk with coaches who encourage weight change and be wary of teams that use any method of getting weight on or off or put undue pressure on kids. There are a lot of eating disorders in body-conscious sports. Remember kids are forming eating habits now that will take them into adulthood."