Nutrition for Young Athletes

— Written By Tracy Davis
en Español / em Português

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Team of positive kids running in race and laughing outdoors

School is back in session and, for many students, this means back to sports as well. Balancing academics and extracurricular activities requires energy and brain power. Whether kids are involved in team sports, dancing, karate, music, drama, arts or adventure sports, they need healthy foods to fuel their bodies and their brains.

Added activity increases the need for calories, nutrients, and fluids. Too often though, kids consume too many sweetened beverages, chips, crackers, and candy. These empty calories are handed out to kids before, during, and after games in an effort to stave off hunger. While these foods may cure hunger pangs in the short term, they do little to sustain energy and concentration.

Calories come from three sources: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. It is important to make healthy choices from each of these. For example, choose nutrient-rich carbohydrates (aka complex carbs) such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains rather than simple carbohydrates like candy, sodas, and cookies. The more active the child, the more carbohydrate is needed to fuel the work of the muscles. Fatigue, burn out, weight changes, and lack of endurance can all be signs that body carbohydrate stores are low.

Select healthy proteins such as eggs, beans, and lean meats rather than high-fat or processed meat. Milk, Greek yogurt, nuts and seeds, hummus, and peanut butter also provide essential protein. Protein, along with carbohydrates, offer fuel for energy as well as satiety (a feeling of fullness).

Another nutrient that helps with satiety, and more importantly, with alertness and concentration, is healthy fat. Healthy (un-saturated) fats support brain health. By contrast, a diet high in saturated (unhealthy) fat can weigh you down, so it’s important to avoid greasy foods, especially right before a game or practice. Healthier fat options include avocados, nuts and seeds, salmon, and tuna.

How can parents use these foods to create something their kids will actually eat? Think about the meals your kids eat now – fast food burgers, tacos, and pizza? You can make these favorite foods healthier at home. Canned beans, salsa, and cheese rolled up in a whole grain tortilla is a better alternative to a drive-thru burrito. Opt for a veggie-laden pizza rather than a meat-lovers pizza.

Pre-game and post-game snacks can be healthy and quick too. Try Greek yogurt with fresh fruit, whole grain cereal with milk or a tuna sandwich on whole grain bread. Make your own protein bars or trail mix. If you purchase pre-packaged bars, look for ones with 9 grams or more protein and fewer than 12 grams sugar. Choose trail mix with no candy or added sugar. Mixed nuts and seeds, peanut butter with whole grain crackers, and dried fruit are great snacks too. Always pack fresh fruit. Its hydrating and contains natural sugar and electrolytes. Fresh fruit is nature’s original grab-and-go snack. Whole apples, pears, oranges, kiwi, and bananas are perfect for on-the-go.

To help your child recover from activity, provide plenty of fluids and a nutritious meal or snack within 30 minutes. Post-exercise snacks should ideally include both carbohydrates and protein. A ratio of 3-4 parts carbohydrate to 1 part protein is ideal for the young athlete. Examples of recovery snacks in this ratio are:  1 slice whole wheat bread, 1 tbsp. peanut butter, ½ cup grapes OR ¼ cup hummus, 6 whole grain crackers, 1 medium carrot. Portion sizes can be adjusted to meet the need of your hungry athlete. How to Fuel Active Kids provides additional recommendations.

Eating enough of the right foods can make a big difference in energy level, athletic endurance, and academic performance. For more information on child nutrition, check out USDA Nutrition or Nutrition For Kids.