Cincinnati Family Magazine

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December 8, 2022

Feeding Your Young Athlete

Athletic bodies thrive with good nutrition. Good food options will keep your child’s body in top form.

If your child plays sports, in middle or high school, you probably have a hard time keeping your pantry stocked. Active kids eat more – or at least they should – although many parents aren’t sure just what constitutes good nutrition for young athletes.

It’s no wonder the concept is confusing, says Sarah Short, a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist. “It’s not easy to generalize,” she says. Kids in early puberty and adolescence come in a stunning array of shapes, sizes, and maturity levels, and when you factor in gender differences and athletic activity, assessing your child’s nutritional needs can seem overwhelming.

Still, there are general principles to follow when your child plays sports and concepts you should know regarding foods, fluids and supplements.

Fueling Up on the Right Foods

Calorie requirements for very demanding sports like football and soccer can be very high, says Short. College football linemen, for example, can require 5,000 calories per day. So unless your child is gaining too much weight, don’t be alarmed if he eats more meals than you do.

Do, however, watch how your child gets her extra calories. Ideally, additional calories should come in the form of whole grains (for example, whole-grain breads and cereals, brown rice or oatmeal). Any fruits and vegetables you can add will always be beneficial. And, if your child is training three or more hours a day, she can probably take in twice as much protein as her non-athletic friends.

High fat intake will add weight quickly because fat contains more than twice the calories of either proteins or carbohydrates, but “it may not be healthy weight,” cautions Short. Gaining large amounts of fat can hamper athletic performance and aggravate a number of health problems.

Simple sugars, which are found in most processed snack foods (including the super-sweet stuff labeled “fat-free”), can also be problematic. They are absorbed directly into the bloodstream and give quick energy, but this boost is often followed by a crash: low energy and increased sugar cravings. This begins a cycle which can lead to weight gain and even diabetes.

Sodas are an easy way to fill up temporarily, but they don’t provide any nutrition in return. The same goes for candy bars and, surprisingly, energy bars. “Energy bars are more or less candy bars with vitamins and minerals added,” says Short. So your child is getting some vitamins, but she’s also getting the sugar-related energy spike of a candy bar, which will fade quickly. If she’s already taking a multivitamin supplement, the energy bar is probably not a good idea.

Make sure your child doesn’t skip breakfast. This meal is especially important for mental and physical health, and for an athlete who is burning up tons of calories, it’s crucial. If your child is in a rush, give him a cereal bar, banana or some other portable form of nutrition. Check product labels to find those that have adequate fiber (more than two grams per serving) and are low in sugar (less than 10 percent of total calories).

Any big meal before a competition should be eaten three hours ahead. “It should be high in complex carbohydrates like bread and pasta,” says Short. Avoid spicy foods or anything that causes your child gastric distress.

The key is to include many different types of foods in your young athlete’s diet. Sugar and fat in moderation are OK as long as they are accompanied by generous portions of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

If you’re truly worried about your child’s nutritional choices, seek professional help. Be sure the expert is a registered dietitian (signified by the letters “R.D.”), says Short. Anyone can call himself a nutritionist, regardless of his background. If your child is a serious athlete training at high levels, it’s best to consult an R.D. with a background in sports nutrition to assess the proper ratios of fats, proteins and carbohydrates for optimum health.

At the very least, your child’s regular physician should conduct a pre-season physical to spot major problems, such as a heart condition, that require the restriction of certain foods.

Are Supplements a Good Idea?

Supplements are quite controversial when it comes to young athletes, because their bodies are in such a critical stage of development. In general, supplementation isn’t necessary, and it can even be harmful.

Your child probably gets enough vitamins through diet alone. In all her years of work in many different countries, Short says she’s only seen one young athlete with a serious vitamin deficiency: a wrestler here in the United States. “His whole diet consisted of unenriched pasta – I don’t know where he found it – and Coca-Cola … How he kept wrestling is beyond me.” There’s nothing wrong with giving your child a daily multivitamin supplement, but if he’s eating fruits and vegetables every day, he’s probably fine without it. Never supplement beyond the daily Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs).

Be warned: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate supplements as long as they are labeled “supplements,” meaning they’re neither food nor drugs. As Short tells her students, she could take dirt from the campus quad, bottle it, and sell it legally as a supplement. Just because something is on the market does not mean it’s safe.

Sometimes high-school athletes are encouraged to take creatine, which is a substance related to energy metabolism that is naturally produced by the body, but Short says that’s a losing proposition. “If you start supplementing too much, your body says, ‘a-ha! I guess I won’t make any [creatine], or I won’t make as much.'” Tinkering with the body’s natural metabolism during adolescence is not a good idea. Besides, there is no conclusive proof yet, Short says, that creatine enhances long-term athletic performance.

Also avoid giving your child supplements to replace electrolytes like potassium, as a simple snack containing potassium (like bananas, potatoes or oranges) will do the trick. Too much or too little potassium can affect the rhythms of the heart, making self-prescribed supplementation dangerous.


Don’t Forget the Fluids

What an extremely active child drinks is every bit as important as what she eats. The lack of proper hydration can be quite dangerous.

“The problem is that their sense of thirst doesn’t keep up with the amount of water that they need,” says Short. Athletes simply don’t – or can’t – drink enough while they’re exercising to replace what they lose through sweat. The best way to prevent serious dehydration, Short says, is to weigh each athlete before and after practice. That way you know exactly how much water the athlete has sweated away and you can replace it accordingly.

Most schools don’t practice this routine, however. Some nutritionists advocate drinking lots of water before an athletic event, says Short, but this can cause a sloshy stomach and, consequently, poor performance. Instead, she suggests, “try to have frequent intakes of small amounts of cool water during exercise.” Be sure your child also drinks plenty of water afterward.

Above all, Short says, never restrict water intake for thirsty young athletes. “This can lead to heat stroke and, in the extreme, death from dehydration. Every single solitary living thing needs water,” she says. If you’re coaching your child’s team and a player needs a water break, let him take it.

Drinking sports drinks in lieu of water is fine, says Short, particularly if the drink offers some calories for energy. However, make sure the sugar content is no more than 10 percent of total calories; high sugar content prevents the fluid in the drink from reaching the intestines, which is where it must go to hydrate the body. Caloric drinks are very important for athletic activities that require running for an hour or more, like cross-country running or basketball.

Salt tablets are a no-no. It was once thought that salt loss in sweat were significant enough to need replacement, but the salt content in your child’s body actually increases in concentration after she sweats because she’s losing much more water than salt. To add salt tablets to that is dangerous.

One sport-specific note: if your teenager is on the wrestling team, be extra vigilant about fluid intake. Because wrestling is categorized by weight, athletes are often encouraged to lose pounds to qualify for a particular wrestling class. This is sometimes accomplished, says Short, through purposeful dehydration (for example, using diuretics, wet suits, saunas and even, incredibly, spitting). This is extremely hazardous and can stunt your child’s growth permanently.

The best general advice is to pay attention to your child’s energy levels, moods and appearance. If your child is getting the right foods and fluids, he’ll feel great both on and off the playing field.

Karin Beuerlein is a freelance writer and mother living in Knoxville.


what to keep on-hand

Make sure your young athlete keeps any of the following easy, healthy snack options in her backpack for a quick re-fuel.

  • dried fruit or trail mix
  • graham crackers
  • pretzels
  • granola
  • fresh fruit
  • bagel
  • nuts
  • popcorn

Source: The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)

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