Food Rules for Young Athletes
We’ve all heard the threatening stereotype of the ravenous teenager whose superpower is the ability to clear out the contents of a refrigerator in a single afternoon. But as a modern society with a keener eye on portion control and overall nutrition, how much food is really necessary to supplement the needs of a child who is both growing and involved in extracurricular sports?
Case in point: My 6-year-old plays soccer and basketball. He’s a string bean of a kid who has been known to actually pass up sweets and other alluring snack foods when he says he isn’t hungry, but after a game or practice, the kid has the kind of appetite I wasn’t expecting until those aforementioned teen years. As a parent, it’s a major concern. When do you put the kibosh on what appears to be too much food and when do you know you’re giving your student athlete the nutrition they need to replenish?
As with so many things in life, the answer is more complicated than you think.
“Asking how many calories a young athlete needs may seem like a simple question, but a lot goes into estimating the needs of young athletes,” says Heather Mangieri, RSN and author of Fueling Young Athletes (Human Kinetics, 2016). “Young athletes come in all shapes and sizes, and the intensity of duration of the sports that they play can vary drastically. Age, both chronological and developmental, gender and sports training, including intensity, frequency and duration, all must be considered when estimating the nutritional needs of young athletes. While one young athlete may only need an additional 150 calories to support the extra energy expenditure, a growing young athlete of another age, body type or sport intensity may need many more.”
Approximately 36,000,000 kids between the ages of 5 and 18 play organized sports annually, a number we’d all like to see increase considering the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition reports that children now spend more than seven and a half hours a day in front of some type of screen, whether that be a computer, TV or gaming system. But physical activity and the benefits of playing on a team can be hampered if young athletes aren’t getting the nutrition they need to be healthy from the inside out.
Trying to decide if your child really needs that extra snack after a practice or game can be daunting, but Mangieri breaks down some of the basics.
“Before kids enter puberty, nutritional needs can be much easier to estimate,” she says. “Once significant growth and development comes into factor, everything changes, including how many total calories they need to support their changing bodies.”
Mangieri recommends eating 1 to 3 hours before an activity, then having another well-balanced meal once the activity is over. She prefers putting the focus on meals as opposed to those quick, on-the-go snacks and treats that usually amount to empty calories and little to no nutritional value.
Essentially it’s best to look at a full day of food game plan than spot treating with quick fixes.
“The best advice for young athletes is to focus on their day-to-day nutritional plan first,” she says. “Though it may seem as if what to eat right before and after activity is the most important, young athletes participating in a one-hour training or competition schedule will benefit the most from making sure they are well fed throughout the day.”
Unfortunately sports and injuries go hand in hand. The most precise and skilled of players is bound to find herself with an injury at some point in her youth sports career, but a well-balanced diet is a helpful tool in building a strong body that can bounce back from such bumps and bruises more easily.
“Day-to-day diet quality is the most important consideration because nutrient deficiencies do not happen overnight,” says Mangieri. “The best way to keep young athletes at the top of their game is to make sure they are eating balanced meals throughout the day, each day of the week. Eating the perfect pre-workout snack won’t do much for you if you have a nutrient deficiency from not eating a high quality diet day to day.”
This means focusing on foods containing nutrients to aid injury prevention, like carbohydrates and foods loaded with iron and vitamin B12 that fight fatigue associated with nutritional deficiencies.
“Young athletes need to make building a strong skeleton a priority as well,” she encourages. “Aim for 3 to 4 servings of dairy per day to meet calcium and vitamin D requirements. Dairy foods are also an easy way to reach protein, magnesium, potassium and other key nutrient requirements needed for bone health. I remind athletes often that an injured athlete is not going to perform their best. Building a strong skeletal and muscular system is a great defense against the damage, stress and potential physical attacks on their bodies.”
We’ve already stressed the importance of the big picture in terms of feeding your child what he or she needs to feel their best before and after a game, but there are certainly foods that are better than others in terms of powering up before and after exuding a ton of energy. Just because your son runs track doesn’t mean a giant bowl of pasta is the only means to a super sprint.
“Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source for working muscles, but kids need protein and some fat as well,” says Mangieri. “What is consumed before practice or a game varies based on how much time the young athlete has to eat. The more time before practice, the more time the food has to digest. There is no perfect pre-practice snack, but just as with every meal or mini-meal, it should be looked to as a way to provide high-quality nutrition.”
She also notes that no one wants to feel full and weighed down prior to exercise, whether that be at a practice or game, so the ideal meal would be low in fat and fiber as those can slow digestion. When eating on the fly (which is never ideal), decrease the portion size of a meal to avoid sluggishness.
So the next time you’re confronted with a hungry face ready to eat everything that isn’t nailed down, consider what you’re reaching for from the fridge or cupboard before making it an offering. What goes into their bodies is an integral piece of the puzzle for building an ace athlete, and every meal counts.
At a loss for what to provide your athlete with on practice and game days? It doesn’t have to be a lot of work. Keeping a few healthy staples on hand will not only provide them with the energy they need to give it their all on the field or court, but will also go a long way to promoting strong bones.
“If there is two to three hours before the practice, focus on eating a balanced meal. If the athlete has less time, decrease the portion size,” says Mangieri. “These don’t look much different than the post exercise snack or mini meal, because they should not.” The following are some examples:
• ½ turkey sandwich with an orange.
• Yogurt with a few crushed almonds and dried fruits.
• Cereal with milk.
• Toast, bagel or English muffin with nut butter and jelly.
• ½ PB&J sandwich.
• 3-4 Fig Newtons or other small low-fat granola bar.