Young athletes need nutritious foods for top-notch performance.
“In order to properly fuel their bodies for sport, youngsters need to eat a daily diet that focuses on adequate calories, particularly in the form of carbohydrates, to support exercise and growth, and adequate protein,” registered dietitian Mary Wilson said.
A board-certified specialist in sports dietetics and director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics at Eastern Kentucky University, Wilson recommends that parents follow the 2010 dietary guidelines for Americans and Myplate.gov for feeding their active youngsters.
The best foods for young athletes are: carbohydrates from whole grains (breads, cereals, pasta, brown rice), fruits, vegetables, and low-fat milk and yogurt; and protein from legumes, nuts, seeds, low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese, poultry and lean cuts of meat.
Registered dietitian Jill Kindy, the mother of two young athletes ages 9 and 11, said planning is important in providing healthful foods for young people.
Kindy, health education coordinator at the University of Kentucky, recommends keeping non-perishables such as granola bars, cheese and crackers, dry cereal or trail mix in the car, so they’re available to eat when kids are heading to the park after school.
“We sometimes travel with an insulated bag/cooler with an ice pack, so we can have items like string cheese or cold drinks. This way, you won’t get stuck running through the drive-through and ending up with a high-fat, high-calorie choice. If you do end up at fast food, go for the grilled chicken, a sub sandwich, and apples and fruit instead of French fries.”
Kindy, who also is a sports dietetics specialist, suggests that youngsters eat something that is mainly carbohydrates before a game or practice that lasts longer than an hour.
During a lengthy activity, children can eat fruit, bagels or granola bars, and they can drink sports drinks.
“After strenuous activity, it’s good to replenish losses shortly after the competition or practice ends — like within 30 to 60 minutes,” Kindy said.
This meal or snack should contain some carbohydrates and some protein. Snacks can be chocolate milk or peanut butter crackers or low-fat cottage cheese and fruit.
For a meal after the game, youngsters should eat lean protein, starch and vegetables, with the plate being about three-fourths rice or pasta and vegetables or fruit, and one-fourth protein.
“If your plate looked like a clock, from about 12 to 4 should be protein (lean meat, chicken, fish) and from 4 back around to 12 should be starch and vegetables,” she said. “Also, remember to drink enough to replenish fluid losses.”
Consuming adequate fluids is important to prevent dehydration, Wilson said.
“Urine color can be a convenient way to monitor hydration,” Wilson said. “Urine should be pale yellow. Dark urine indicates dehydration and shows that an athlete needs to drink more fluids before, during and after exercise.
One of the best insurance policies for adequate nutrition during competition is eating well on a daily basis during the season, Wilson said.
“Parents can help by ensuring that these healthful foods are readily available, helping kids learn to plan ahead to fuel workouts and competitions, and, of course, serving as a role model for children with respect to nutrition,” she said.
Just as important as what active youngsters eat is when they eat.
“Meals and snacks should be spaced throughout the day, so energy is available to muscles when needed,” she said. An athlete who trains or practices at 4 p.m. should eat breakfast, lunch, and possibly a light snack before, followed by dinner after the activity.
For a 6:30 p.m. practice, the athlete should eat breakfast, lunch and a light dinner or substantial snack about 4 or 5 p.m., followed by a substantial snack or light meal after practice, she said.
As the season continues, the young athletes will head into tournaments that can last all day.
“Athletes should stick to familiar, well-tolerated foods, focusing on carbohydrates and lean protein on the day of competition,” Wilson said.
“Most exercisers can eat a snack one to three hours prior to a competition. This pre-competition meal/snack is especially important for morning competitions.”
For daylong competitions, planning is crucial to ensure that adequate carbohydrates and protein are available during the event.
Good choices to have on hand include fresh and dried fruit, crackers, yogurt, sandwiches, cheese, granola bars and peanut butter.
Wilson advises youngsters to stick to the normal sports diet (plenty of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low-fat milk products and lean protein) during the week before and day before competition.
Kindy said the pre-game meal “cannot undo a bunch of unhealthy eating that you do the rest of the week. If you eat well all the time, then you will be practicing at your optimum, which ultimately should mean that you are competing at your optimum.”
A new book focuses on nutrition for school-age children. “Sports Nutrition for Young Athletes” by Anita Bean is written for those engaged in athletics, whether at the recreational level or in serious competition.
“There’s no doubt that what children eat affects their health as well as their performance in sport,” Bean writes in the introduction. “If they eat a poor-quality diet, then they not only risk illness but they will not be able to train and compete to the best of their ability. But if they eat a healthy diet that provides the correct amount of energy and nutrients, then they will enjoy better health and improved performance in their sport.
“It’s not essential that young athletes eat a perfect diet all the time, but provided they get it right about 80 percent of the time, then they will have a great chance of putting in their best performance.”
Here are some snack recipes that will provide energy for the young athlete.