Written by Tracy S. Williams, BS, Nutrition Educator.
Learn more about Tracy at Tracy's Plate
April is National Youth Sports Safety Month, created to focus attention on sports safety and injury prevention for children and teen athletes. Proper nutrition is also important for healthy youth athletics. Eating right will help children and teens to be healthier and stronger for competition and in their daily life.
Feeding Young Athletes
While feeding a child athlete may seem like a challenge, it only requires a little knowledge and extra planning. Children need optimal nutrition for fueling and recovery from training as well as meet the calorie demands of growth and maturation. It is important to help kids refuel with carbohydrates, focusing on family mealtime before and after practice or competition.
It is ideal for the family to sit down together for a pre-game breakfast. Three hours beforehand, an optimal pre-game breakfast could include sliced and slightly grilled potatoes, paired with scrambled eggs and nutrient rich fruit such as berries and orange juice or fat-free or low-fat milk. Hydration is always important before, during and after practice and competitions. Dehydration occurs when your child fails to adequately replace fluid loss through sweating. Dehydration that exceeds 2% of body weight loss harms exercise performance, so make sure your child replace fluid loss after exercise performance, so make sure your child drinks small amounts of water throughout the game. Potassium and carbohydrates are important nutrients to replenish after exercise. Potassium and carbohydrates are found in bananas, potatoes, and fat-free or low-fat yogurt or milk. Chocolate milk is a particularly good post-competition recovery beverage.
If you have more than one child in sports, the hours after practice or a weekday competition may require snacking before dinner. Have pre-prepared snacks ready when kids arrive home hungry after a hard after-school practice or game. These snacks can be cut-up fresh fruit, low-fat yogurt and smoothies. For a tasty and filling post-game family dinner, serve baked or broiled lean cuts of meat such as lean beef or pork, chicken breast, salmon or tuna. Add whole grains, like whole-wheat pasta with a low-fat tomato or cheese sauce. Toss in vegetables or include a side salad. Parents and kids should complete their meal with fruit for dessert, such as baked apples or pears along with a glass of low-fat or fat-free milk. Or create an instant yogurt parfait with layers of low-fat vanilla yogurt, fresh, frozen or canned fruit, and crunchy whole grain cereal. Be sure to consume all five food groups throughout the day, protein, grains, vegetables, fruits and dairy to give your family and young athletes the nutrients and calories they need.
Eating Adequate Calories and Nutrients
Young athletes often push themselves harder than usual, training intensely to gain a competitive edge. This increased activity requires eating more calories to meet the demands of training and recovery in addition to calories needed for growth and development. Children and teens may not understand how their calorie need translate into daily food choices. Bone health is a major concern as girls and boys build 60 to 80 percent of their lifetime bone mass by age 18. If young athletes restrict their eating to keep weight down for sports like gymnastics, skating or wrestling, bone growth may be diminished. Restricted diets can also be low in calcium, vitamin D, which contributes to poor bone formation.
Other potential effects of eating too few calories are increased risk of injury, and lowered endurance and decreased muscle strength. It can also reduce response to training, decrease coordination, and impair judgment and increase irritability and depression. The good news is correcting low calorie intake can get athletic performance back to optimum levels.
It is important for parents to teach their children about the calorie demands of their training and the relationship proper nutrition, to good bone health and injury prevention and optimal training. Keep an eye out for weight loss and changes in mood as well as create a supportive environment in which girls and boys can consume three meals and one to three snacks per day. Missing one meal on a regular basis can result in an inadequate calorie intake.
School Nutrition for Athletes
A well balanced diet provides children and teen athletes with the calories and nutrients they need to power their workouts and support their rapid growth. According to a study in the 2006 Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, children and teens who play team sports have slightly better eating habits and higher intakes of key nutrients than kids who do not, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.
Today breakfast is often available at school, so if students are late risers or are not ready to eat when they get up in the morning, they can still grab breakfast before class. When kids do not eat breakfast, they miss out on a big chunk of their day’s nutrition. That can rob them of important nutrients and also take its toll on their energy levels at practice later in the day.
Active kids need protein to support growth and build and repair hardworking muscles. Today protein is leaner than ever because of USDA guidelines encouraging schools to limit saturated fat to less than 10 percent of overall calories. That means leaner meats, skinless chicken and low-fat dairy in yogurt parfaits, bean and cheese burritos, and egg and cheese wraps for breakfast. Turkey burgers and southwestern chef salads and rice and bean bowls at lunch.
Carbohydrates are the optimal fuel for sports and exercise because they are naturally used for proper energy. The best place to get them is from slowly digested, nutrient-rich whole grains. At breakfast kids will now start their day with whole grain versions of cereal, mini pancakes, and zucchini or banana bread. For lunch they will dig into whole wheat spaghetti with meat sauce, chicken sandwiches on whole grain buns and baked chicken tenders with brown rice.
Good hydration should begin early in the day before kids even set foot on the playing field. While sports drinks might be a smart move, water is better for hydration for training that only lasts an hour. Sports drinks are best when used for a two hour training session or during games.
Parents can provide nutritious meals after a game or training session. Hard training could contribute to eating disorder if athletes do not have proper nutrition. School cafeterias can contribute to proper nutrition for student athletes. Nutrition will always be a key component for the safety and strength for all athletes.