By Denise Morrison Yearian
All children need nutritionally balanced meals for healthy growth and development. But for those involved in rigorous athletics, the needs may be even greater. To ensure your young athlete receives proper nutrition and hydration to fuel his growing body and sustain him during activities, consider these seven expert suggestions.
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 youth sports nutritionist Sharon Collison, MS, RD, CDN, CSSD. “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.”
Savvy with supplements. Amy Barausky, RD at A. I. duPont Hospital for Children, 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.
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, RD, director of sports nutrition at Texas Children’s Hospital. “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.”
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,” says Collison. “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.”
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,” says Anding. “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.”
Before and after nutrition. Although children should have carbs and a moderate amount of protein before an event, they need to know what their stomach’s can tolerate, says Barausky. “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 agrees. “After an activity, there is a twenty- to thirty-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.”
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,” says Anding. “I tell elementary-school athletes, ‘When you pass by the water fountain at school, take four big gulps.’ That’s about four 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 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.”
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 take off or put on weight, 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.”
Denise Morrison Yearian is a former educator and editor of two parenting magazines, as well as the mother of three children and four grandchildren.