What should my child eat and drink to gain a competitive edge?
Many parents of child athletes ponder this question. Often parents are bombarded with conflicting messages about nutrition and are misinformed about what foods their children require for good health and the demands of regular physical activity and athletic competition. Focus on eating whole foods (not processed foods, which typically come in a box or bag) in order to maximize health and performance. To find out what your young athlete tolerates best, experiment during training, not competition.
Carbohydrates: The competitive edge
While many adults shun carbohydrates in the battle of the bulge, carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for muscles during exercise. Offer children carbohydrate-rich foods at each meal and snack. Some healthy carbohydrate choices include the following:
• Fruits and vegetables
• Whole-grain pasta
• Brown rice
• Whole-grain cereals, breads, and tortillas
• Nutrition bars (see “Breakfast” for examples)
• Whole-grain crackers (like Triscuits)
• Whole-grain pretzels
• Yogurt (watch for added sugar)
• 100% fruit juices
Avoid added sugar in processed foods and avoid all “junk food” like sodas or candy. Even though these foods are usually carbohydrates, they are to be eaten in very small amounts.
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 if eaten immediately preceding an athletic event. Young athletes get all of the protein that they need when eating a carbohydrate-rich, well-balanced, and varied diet. The post-exercise snack or meal should provide a moderate amount of protein, in addition to carbohydrates, to help maximize glycogen stores and repair muscle damage. Good sources of protein include the following:
• Chicken, turkey, or other lean meats
• Dried beans and legumes
Vitamins and minerals: Micronutrients are a big deal
Physically active children typically come closer to meeting their requirements for vitamins and minerals than their non-athlete counterparts. However, iron and calcium are sometimes the exception. This is especially true for endurance athletes, particularly female endurance runners. If exercise performance has declined, then have your child’s doctor check blood levels for serum ferritin and hemoglobin because non-anemic iron deficiency is prevalent in young athletes.
Iron-rich foods include the following:
• Fortified breads, cereals, and grains
• Lean meats and poultry
• Dark-green vegetables
Calcium-rich foods include the following:
• Low-fat milk, yogurt, or cheese
• Fortified soy milk
• Dark-green leafy vegetables
Fat: Not too much, not too little
Some fat in the diet is needed for brain development and vitamin absorption and is a source of energy during exercise and recovery. Healthy fats are found in the following foods:
• Nuts and nut butters, such as peanut butter
• Olive oil
• Canola oil
• Fatty fish, such as salmon
Unhealthy fats are found in animal-based foods, such as the following:
• High-fat dairy products
• Fatty meats (sausage, bacon)
• Tropical oils, such as palm oil and palm kernel oil
• Trans fats, which are found in many commercially processed foods (look for partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredients; examples include margarine, shortening, and peanut butters that are not natural)
Starting your day: Breakfast!
Healthy days start with breakfast. Here are some quick ideas to get your day moving in the right direction! Adding fresh fruit to any of the options listed below is always a good idea.
• Yogurt Parfait—Mix plain yogurt and granola with one tablespoon of honey or maple syrup
• Oatmeal with fresh fruit (watch added sugars in the oatmeal)
• Homemade smoothie—Mix plain yogurt with your favorite frozen fruit and ½ cup of water
• Granola/Nutrition bars—BelVita, Clif Kids, Luna, Kind, Balance, ThinkThin, Corazonas, Pure, Rise, Larabars, Clif Z, Kashi TLC, or try making your own granola bars to fit your child’s taste and control added sugars (note: bars should not be used as meal replacements)
• Hard-boiled eggs and a piece of toast or fruit
• Healthy milkshake—Mix milk, peanut butter, one banana, and cinnamon
• Cottage cheese with fresh berries
• Greek yogurt—choose plain fat-free yogurt and add granola and/or fresh fruit
• Whole grain English muffin topped with peanut butter and apple slices
• Whole grain Sandwich Thin topped with cheddar cheese and apple slices
• Shredded Wheat (unfrosted) with a cup of skim or 1% milk
Hydration: Morning, noon, and night
Child athletes have special fluid needs, partly because they 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 they are not as efficient at transferring this heat from the working muscles to the skin.
In addition, children are more susceptible to extreme environmental conditions because it takes them longer to acclimate. Encourage young athletes to drink 4–8 fluids ounces (fl oz) of liquid every 15–20 minutes. Weigh your child before and after exercise and have him/her drink at least 16–24 fl oz for every pound lost. Another hydration test is observing the color of the child’s urine: if well hydrated, the urine should be clear or light colored.
Water is always the best option for hydration. Children do not require electrolyte replacement (sports drink) unless they have done strenuous activity for more than 60 minutes. Many sports drinks are filled with added sugars and artificial colors in addition to electrolytes. 100% fruit juice diluted with water can taste better than plain water if kids want something with flavor. You can also dilute Gatorade or other sports drinks with water.
Eat often: Before exercise, during exercise, and after exercise
Active children need to eat often to fuel their smaller bodies for physical activity. A small meal or snack every three to four hours is a good rule of thumb. Pay particular attention to pre-exercise snacks to help provide fuel for physical activity, as well as to the post-exercise snack and/or meal to help speed recovery. Avoid highly processed foods before, during, and after exercise.
Choose a pre-exercise snack that is high in carbohydrates and lower in protein, fat, and fiber so it is easily digestible and well tolerated. Here are a few suggestions:
• Nutrition bars (see “Breakfast” for examples)
• Smoothie (do something simple like blending frozen strawberries with a banana and soy, almond, or low-fat milk)
• Oatmeal with fruit, yogurt, and banana
◦ A turkey and cheese sandwich
◦ Whole wheat bread with peanut butter
◦ Spaghetti with lean meat sauce
The post-exercise snack or meal should provide a moderate amount of protein, in addition to healthy carbohydrates, to help maximize glycogen stores and repair muscle damage. Here are some ideas:
A special note for elementary school athletes: Offering sweet or salty junk food as a “snack” after sports teaches bad habits to our growing children. Donuts, cookies, chips, and fruit-flavored sugary beverages are not at all what children need after exercise, especially if they barely broke a sweat. Sweets have their place in a balanced diet, but offer something healthy (e.g., fruit, string cheese, nutrition bars, 100% juice) to kids if they are hungry after a game. They will eat the healthy option if they are really hungry.
Real Food For Kids is committed to working in collaboration with our partners to increase the quantities of healthful foods in our school systems, developing and delivering programs that educate our students and their families on making healthier lifestyle choices, and ensuring access to real whole foods for all school children.
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