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Nutrition for Young Athletes
Proper nutrition is so important for everyone, especially for young athletes playing competitive sports. Fueling your kids (ages 18 and younger) with the proper amounts of food and nutrients is especially important because their bodies are still growing! It’s imperative for parents, guardians, and coaches to emphasize proper nutrition in young athletes. Not only will this ensure a healthier child but also improve their performance. I break down the details below to fuel your growing young athlete.
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What to Eat:
Energy needs of your young athlete
The longer the duration your child exercises the greater their energy needs, it’s that simple! Well not exactly. Each child’s needs vary according to age, weight, height, metabolism, and muscle mass, in addition to physical activity level.
Energy needs for a 14-year-old girl (105 pounds, 62 inches) according to physical activity level (PAL) and resting energy expenditure (REE)
Less active (less than 1 hour of activity per day) = approximately 2,000 calories
Moderately active (1 hour of activity per day) = approximately 2,300 calories
Very active (greater than 1 hour of activity per day) = approximately 2,800 calories
For a recreational sport less than 1 hour per week, a child’s energy needs may be equal to a small snack of approximately 200 calories, that’s it. Whereas young athletes in competitive sports may be consuming as much as 1,000 calories more per day. Kids need to listen to their bodies and eat accordingly. Some days they will be hungrier than others, and they should properly fuel their hunger – the changes in appetite may signify a growth spurt or an increase in activity level.
Proper Fuel for your Young Athlete
Consuming enough carbohydrates is essential for better performance and recovery in young athletes, and both simple and complex carbohydrates can add value. Complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly, providing a steady source of energy – complex carbohydrates should make up the majority of their diet. Simple carbohydrates digest more quickly – simple carbohydrates should be your source of fuel when energy is needed quickly, such as right before or during an event – simple carbohydrates are the fuel in sport drinks. All consumed carbohydrates are broken down into glucose for either immediate energy or stored in the muscle and the liver as glycogen to be used for energy later. Stored glycogen can help fight fatigue during practice or games. Young athletes should start their activity with glycogen-filled muscles, which fuel your brain and muscles. When not enough carbohydrates are consumed your athlete will lack energy and focus – decreasing their performance. Carbohydrates are the needed fuel for your young athlete to perform at their best.
Tips for eating carbohydrates:
- Majority of carbohydrates consumed should be complex carbohydrates: whole grains, beans, pasta, and starchy vegetables such as potatoes
- Include 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily – consume a variety of colors
- Limit added sugar to times around activity – during a game or practice is when sports drinks should be consumed
Young athletes have a greater protein requirement compared to their less active peers. Protein aids in muscle glycogen recovery and muscle tissue synthesis which means it helps build and recover muscles. Studies show that growing, athletic children need more protein than adults. For example, adults need 0.8g of protein per kilogram of body weight. Growing, young athletes may need 1.0g to 1.8g of protein per kilogram of body weight.
Example: a 14 year old girl, 105 pounds needs = approximately 60-80g of protein per day
(approximately 20g protein per meal + 10g protein at snacks)
Recent research displays the need to evenly distribute protein throughout the day, this will aid in increased protein synthesis, maintenance, and performance.
Tips for eating protein:
- Add protein sources to all meals and snacks – protein should be spread evenly throughout the day – good sources of protein include chicken, turkey, lean beef, fish, dried beans, eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt, nuts and seeds and natural nut butters.
- Aim to eat 20 – 30 grams of protein at each meal
- Aim to eat 10 – 20 grams of protein at each snack
Dietary fat consumption is important for the body’s ability to absorb fat soluble vitamins (A,D,E & K) and for better immune function. The main source of fats in young athletes diets should be from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (omega-3 & 6). These fats can be found in nuts, oils, and fish. All children should limit or avoid processed foods containing trans-fats. Some sources of healthy fats include natural nut butters, hemp seeds, raw nuts, avocado, tuna, salmon, and olive oil. Fatty foods may decrease hunger resulting in a lower consumption of nutrient-rich foods providing the proper vitamins and minerals for growth and development
Tips for eating fat:
- Avoid fatty foods before a practice or game – fat requires oxygen, and during intense activity your child will be unable to burn fat efficiently. Foods to avoid include fast food, fried foods, french fries, pizza, chicken nuggets, fatty desserts, and chips.
- Incorporate healthy fats – natural nut butters, hemp seeds, raw nuts, avocado, tuna, salmon, and olive oil.
There are three important vitamin and minerals young athletes should focus on receiving in their diets daily – calcium, vitamin D, and iron. Calcium intake is essential for healthy bones. Calcium can be found in a variety of foods including milk, cheese, yogurt, broccoli, spinach, and fortified grain products. Vitamin D is important for proper absorption of calcium. Sources of vitamin D include fortified dairy products and sun exposure. Iron is essential for oxygen delivery to body tissues. During the growing stages, iron supports proper growth, increases in blood volume, and lean muscle mass. Some sources of iron include eggs, dark leafy greens, and lean meats.
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What to drink:
Hydration is essential for proper performance. Dehydration can lead to headaches, muscle cramping, weakness, and fatigue. Make sure your young athlete is drinking enough water throughout their day, at each meal and taking water breaks during practice. Depending on the duration and temperature during exercise, your child’d needs will vary. Proper hydration includes drinking fluid before, during, and after their activity. Young athletes should be drinking approximately 6 – 8 ounces of water every 20 minutes and up to 1.5L every hour around and during activities. It’s important to hydrate throughout the day as well – carry a water bottle in school to continuous be drinking water. Eating hydrating foods throughout the day like grapes, watermelon and oranges can also boost hydration. Try to limit sugary beverages like sodas and fruit juices and implement fruit infused waters. Adding lemons, limes, oranges, or strawberries to water can sweeten and flavor it naturally!
Are sports drinks appropriate?
Sports drinks may not be needed for children who exercise less than 1 hour per day. For those who exercise longer than 1 hour per day, sports drinks that emphasize sodium may be warranted. However, look for sports drinks without artificial coloring and high fructose corn syrup.
Make a sports drink:
- 20 ounces water
- 6 ounces favorite juice
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
Buy a sport drink:
Nuun Performance – electrolytes + carbohydrates to hydrate you better during long or strenuous activities >60 minutes.
Are energy drinks appropriate?
Do not confuse energy drinks with sports drinks. Sports drinks are needed to replace electrolytes lost during exercise. Energy drinks are marketed to boost energy, or maintain alertness – energy drinks mostly contain caffeine, taurine, l-carnitine, B-vitamins, and herbal supplements like ginseng and guarana. They contain high and unregulated amounts of caffeine. At a minimum, consumption of caffeinated energy drinks may cause nausea, abdominal pain, jitteriness, a racing heart, sleep disturbances, and agitation in your young athlete. As well as heavy caffeine consumption being associated with serious consequences, especially in children, adolescents, and young adults, including cardiac abnormalities, seizures, mania, stroke, and sudden death. Energy drinks are classified as dietary supplements, therefore energy drinks are not regulated to the same standards by the FDA. Studies of energy drinks have shown no therapeutic benefit, and many ingredients are understudied and not regulated. It’s best to encourage your child to avoid energy drinks, and hydrate with water and sports drinks during activities.
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When to Eat:
Before practice or a game
Before practice, a game, or a workout, a high carb and low-fat meal should be consumed. These meals should be easily digestible so there are no stomach pains or cramps during the workout.
Consume a meal 3-4 hours before the activity and/or a snack 1-2 hours before activity.
During practice or a game
This is the time simple carbohydrates work best to provide immediate energy. If the activity is greater than 1 hour, this is when sport drinks may be needed.
After practice or a game
Always end a practice or game by consuming carbohydrates + protein to replenish muscle glycogen stores. The purpose of a post-workout meal is to refuel the muscles and support quick recovery.
Snacks to make:
Looking for some healthy snacks your athlete could eat before or after a practice or a game?
- Mini bagels with natural peanut butter or cream cheese
- Hummus and pretzels
- Cheese with fruit or crackers
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
Snacks to take:
Active kids have active schedules. Packing non-perishable snacks in their sports bags is imperative! Here are a few that we love and feed our own young athletes. Most of these items can be found in stores and on Amazon.
Manitoba Harvest Hemo Heart Bites
Optimal Nutrition for Young Athletes. http://nyshsi.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/NYSHSI-Optimal-Nutrition-for-Youth-Athletes.pdf Sport Nutrition for Young Athletes. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3805623/