Feeding Kids for Success: Fueling for Sports

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For many of you, after school sports comes along with back to school. If your child has never participated in sports before, this might be overwhelming from both a scheduling and a nutrition perspective. As we previously talked about, good nutrition supports the growth and development, immune system, and academic achievement of your child. It can also help them become a stronger, more consistent athlete. 

Sporting events are often filled with junk food. Sugary drinks, hot dogs, candy, pre-packaged snacks, and oddly colored sports drinks. A busy schedule can make it seem like fast and pre-packaged foods are the only way you are going to be able to feed everyone, but while they may be convenient, they don't support your athlete in feeling good or performing their best. 

The basics

Since most kids aren't interested in the finer points of nutrition, here are the basics you can tell them will help them achieve maximum athletic performance:

  1. Don’t skip meals. This means eating breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks every single day.
  2. Drink water throughout the day – carry around a water bottle and fill it up throughout the day. Drink more water the day before a competition/game/race.
  3. Eat snacks! Eating a snack with protein after exercise can help promote muscle repair and growth.

How many calories?

This chart is helpful for determining about how many calories your young athlete needs based on age and activity level. This chart is a great reference because it can help you see that while there is a difference between the caloric needs of a sedentary child and a highly active child, it is not a free pass to eat whatever they want. 

If you or your child feel that they are always hungry, consider adding a few more snacks or an extra meal. You can also experiment with adding a little more fat or protein to keep them fuller longer. Their hunger will also be exacerbated during times they are having a growth spurt. 

What foods should you focus on?

A great way to talk about proper nutrition with a young athlete is to talk about how food is fuel for their activities. Most kids know that junk food doesn't make them feel good, so it pretty easy to help them make the connection that when they eat healthy foods they feel good and feeling good is important in performing well in sports. 

Making healthy options available is essential to this process. If they have easy access to junk food, cookies, candy, chips, etc. they will choose that because it's convenient and tastes good. But having better options available (fresh fruits and veggies) can help them make better choices. 

In general, we recommend a gluten-free diet to our patients, even children. This is important when considering carbohydrate sources for your young athlete. Carbohydrates our the main source of fuel for our muscles, so eating enough of them is important. Root vegetables, rice, and quinoa are all good gluten-free carb sources. 

Protein helps with muscle repair and growth, but it does not need to be the main focus of your young athletes diet. In general, athletes require more protein than people who are sedentary, but this doesn't mean eating steak and tuna by the pound. You can meet the protein needs of your athlete by including a protein source at every meal and snack. Our favorite protein sources are meat and poultry, yogurt (as long as it has less than 10g of sugar per serving, try plain yogurt with a little bit of honey), nuts, and eggs.

Healthy fats are also key to your athletes diet. These include nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, and coconut. 

breakfast really is important

Children and adolescents need to eat breakfast every day. No exceptions. This becomes even more important if they are involved in sports. Skipping breakfast can affect their energy and attention span during the school day, which if your sport isn't until after school, can make it difficult to feel like participating. 

This doesn't mean you should let you kid sit down to a bowl of sugary cereal or PopTart. Even if breakfast is small and eaten on the go, make sure that they get foods from more than one food group. There are tons of recipes out there for easy, make-ahead breakfasts.

Some quick and easy ideas are:

  • Hard boiled egg and a piece of fruit
  • Plain yogurt with a granola and a little bit of honey with a handful of nuts
  • Apple with peanut butter
  • Egg sandwich with two eggs and cheese
  • Protein fruit smoothie (be careful with smoothies, you can pack a lot of sugar into a glass, choose fresh ingredients and try adding a handful of greens for extra nutrition)

Here are some recipes you could make on the weekend and eat for breakfast all week:

Wellness Energy Bars

Make Ahead Breakfast Bowls (these could be customized to specific tastes as needed)

Banana and Chia Muffins

Taco Egg Muffins

Protein Breakfast Cookies

What about sports drinks?

Sports drinks contain extra calories and sugar that children don't need, especially when participating in normal, age appropriate activities. Plain water should be the drink of choice and sports drinks should only be consumed during prolonged and vigorous physical activity or during longer activities in very hot conditions. Even then, if consuming pre-packaged sports drinks, they should be watered down. 

Kids are more likely to become dehydrated than adults, so young athletes should aim to drink 4-8 oz of water for every 20 minutes of physical activity. This is 2-4 large gulps of water. They may require more if they are wearing a lot of protective gear. 

Timing is everything

When you eat is almost as important as what you eat. Just like adults, young athletes need time to digest a meal before a competition, game, or even practice. A regular meal should be eaten 2-3 hours ahead of time, but a small snack can be eaten 30 minute to an hour before sports practice or a game. 

Most young athletes do not need to refuel during a competition or game as their activities are not long enough to require extra fuel (especially if they have eaten well the day of and the few days before an event). However, make sure to get some good food into your child within an hour of completing a sports activity. This ensures faster and better muscle recovery as well as helps to keep them from feeling lethargic or run down the next day.