Teaching our children proper nutrition is key in keeping them healthy. This is especially true for kids who participate in sports. It is important for all kids to be physically active; the national guidelines recommend an hour of activity every day. For kids and teens involved in athletic activities beyond that daily hour of activity, good nutrition is crucial for appropriate growth, development, and sports performance.
A basic understanding of good nutrition will build a foundation for healthy kids and athletes. Balance is the main idea. It is important for all kids to eat foods from all of the food groups. The grain group – bread, cereal, rice, pasta, etc. – provides carbohydrates needed for energy. Whole grains like wheat and bran also provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Fruits and vegetables are high in vitamins and minerals to ensure proper growth, development, and overall body functioning. Fruits also provide carbohydrates for energy. Dairy foods – milk, cheese, and yogurt – provide carbohydrates, protein, and important vitamins and minerals. Calcium and vitamin D are very important for athletes because they build strong bones and are involved in muscle contraction.
Protein foods – the meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dry beans, and legumes group – provide protein needed for energy and healthy muscles. Individual recommendations for intake vary, but good nutrition can generally be achieved by consuming a variety of foods from different food groups throughout the day. Added fats, oils, and sweets contribute calories but very little vitamins and minerals. It is okay to add a little flavor to your foods. Be careful, though, about consuming foods and drinks that contribute only fats, oils, and sweets. These foods and drinks, such as cakes, candies, and soft drinks, will not help you prepare for your sport.
For kids involved in sports, there are additional nutrition issues to consider. Timing of intake, appropriate hydration, and refueling are three significant issues in sports nutrition.
Timing intake appropriately ensures that an athlete has the right amount of energy and nutrients to participate in his or her activity. It is often recommended that athletes, particularly kids, have five to six small meals per day – or three meals plus two to three snacks – instead of three bigger meals. This helps the body keep energy levels adequate for activity. Each meal and snack should contain foods and drinks that contain both carbohydrates and protein. Timing also plays a role in preparing for competition. The “pre-game meal” should meet the following guidelines:
- Provide sufficient fluid to maintain hydration (see below)
- High in carbohydrates for energy and blood glucose maintenance
- Moderate in protein
- Low in fat/fiber to promote digestive processing and decrease digestive stress
- Composed of foods/drinks familiar to the athlete and well-tolerated
Hydration is ensuring that your body has enough fluids. Because fluids are lost when we sweat, this is particularly important for athletes. It is also especially important in hot and humid climates. Proper hydration does not only involve drinking the right fluids during physical activity; it means drinking fluids properly throughout the day to ensure adequate hydration when activity begins. Drink plenty of water throughout the day, especially if you are thirsty. During sport practices or competitions, drink a little bit of water whenever you have a break. If it is a long competition or a lot of fluid is being lost in sweat, sport drinks are good sources of fluids and electrolytes. However, kids generally do not need to drink sports drinks every time they practice or compete. These drinks can become a source of “empty calories,” giving a sense of fullness with little nutrients. When kids drink sports drinks, 8 to 12 ounces is plenty. A 16 or 20 ounce bottle is unnecessary and can interfere with proper refueling.
Refueling is giving back to your body what it has used during activity. To refuel properly, a meal or snack should be consumed within thirty minutes of ending athletic activity. The best refueling meals and snacks contain both carbohydrates and protein. If it is time for a meal after a sports practice or competition, refueling is usually simple. However, if it is not a normal meal time, it is important to add at least a “light” snack. Some good examples are peanut butter and crackers, string cheese and a piece of fruit, or a cup of yogurt. Each time you refuel properly, you are preparing your body better for future activities.
There are also a few nutrients that are particularly important for athletes to monitor. Iron is important for carrying oxygen in the blood. Low iron will cause fatigue and decreased performance. Iron can be increased with high-iron foods, such as red meats and fortified grains. Calcium is important for bones and muscle contraction. Low calcium can increase risk of stress fractures because the body will use calcium from the bones for muscle contraction. Three to four servings of dairy foods per day will help ensure adequate calcium. It can be helpful to take a multivitamin daily. Be sure to choose a vitamin appropriate for age. Children should never take an adult vitamin.
For all kids, listening to the body’s hunger and fullness cues will help ensure adequate nutrition. Choose healthy foods, eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re full!