Do You Know How to Feed Your Child Athlete?
May 13, 2004, KidsHealth.org

All kids need to eat balanced meals to ensure a healthy diet, so does it really make a difference if your child is on a sports team or working out? Sure it does! You may think that those long hours at the gym or the daily practices after school can only make your child healthier, and they certainly are a part of a healthy lifestyle - but only if your child is eating the right foods to support increased activity.

What Are the Nutritional Needs of Young Athletes?
The food guide pyramid actually is designed to meet the needs of active kids, according to Jessica Donze, a pediatric nutrition therapist. This means that if your child's diet is in line with the pyramid, he's probably getting the nutrition he needs.

But kids who are involved in strenuous athletic activities (such as cross- country running or competitive swimming) may need to consume more food. "Eating healthy for sports is an extension of eating healthy for life," Donze says. She recommends that young athletes eat regularly, not miss meals, and especially never miss breakfast. She also suggests lots of fruits and vegetables to provide vitamins and minerals.

Complex carbohydrates such as pasta, rice, bread, and cereal form the foundation of a solid sports diet. You can explain to your child that these carbohydrates are like fuel for the body. Without sufficient complex carbohydrates, he's running on empty.

Your child's involvement in sports is a great opportunity to communicate with him about the importance of healthy eating. An athlete's desire to perform well in sports can help your child focus on eating well for good performance throughout his life.

Stress the importance of variety in your child's diet. "There are 40 different nutrients that your child needs," says Jackie Berning of the American Dietetic Association and a sports nutrition specialist. "They're not going to get them all from just a few kinds of foods."

To keep your child interested in eating healthy food for an active lifestyle, introduce new foods or new food combinations often.

Another way to provide kids with the complete nutrition they need for sports is by keeping their diet colorful. Most foods containing vitamins and minerals (such as spinach, carrots, squash, and peppers) are colored, Donze explains. A variety of colors of food typically is a sign of a variety of nutrients.

In addition, natural or lightly processed foods, such as whole wheat breads and baked potatoes, are more wholesome choices than heavily processed foods, like white breads and potato chips. Usually the less processed the food, the greater the nutritional value.

Drink Up!
Your child should drink water or other fluids throughout the day but especially during and after periods of physical activity. Berning suggests 1 cup for every half-hour to an hour of activity, depending on the individual. So, if your child's volleyball tournament will last about 2 hours, he should drink between 2 and 4 cups of water throughout the event and have another 2 cups after the game, too.

Children often fail to recognize or respond to feelings of thirst. This means your child should be encouraged to drink before he feels thirsty. Urine color is a good measure of hydration. If urine is clear or the color of pale lemonade, the hydration level is good. If a child's urine is dark, like the color of apple juice, however, he may be on the way to dehydration or heatstroke.

Although many sports drinks are available, plain water is usually what kids need. Sports drinks advertise that they replace electrolytes - such as the sodium and potassium lost in sweat. But in most cases, lost electrolytes can be replenished by a good meal after the activity.

Endurance-sport participants are the exception. If your child is involved in intense exertion for more than 2 hours, some type of sports drink may be beneficial for replenishing carbohydrates. This is because the sugar (a simple carbohydrate) found in such drinks can serve as a temporary replacement for complex carbohydrates, assuming your child eats well before and after the activity. Soda and sports drinks with caffeine should be avoided because caffeine can increase urine output and therefore increase the risk of dehydration.

Pressures Facing Athletes
Some school-age athletes face unique pressures involving nutrition and body weight. In sports such as football, kids may feel they need to radically increase body weight. In other sports such as wrestling, kids often try to achieve maximum strength at the lowest possible weight, which can lead to crash dieting and other harmful eating habits.

In either case, your best bet is to emphasize performance. Healthy eating supports healthy performance. Unhealthy eating leads to lower strength and endurance and poor mental concentration. Consider the example of wrestling. To qualify for the lowest possible weight class, wrestlers sometimes try to spit, vomit, or sweat enough water from their bodies to make the weight.

"They think they can do without the water," Donze says, "but muscles are 75% water. Without water, muscles lose much of their effectiveness."

Similar performance issues arise when kids try to increase their weight too fast. When a person overeats, the food the body cannot immediately use gets stored as fat. As a result, kids who overeat may gain weight, but their physical fitness will be diminished.

Game Day
Your child should eat well on game days, but make sure he eats early enough so that there's time to digest before game time. For a full meal, that usually means 2 to 3 hours before the event. The meal itself should not be very different from what your child has been eating throughout his training.

Meal and Snack Suggestions
Lower-fat, high-carbohydrate (especially complex-carbohydrate) snacks and meals are best.

Yogurt with some granola and a banana would make a good breakfast. For a lunchtime meal, serve bean burritos with some low-fat cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes. Dinner could be grilled chicken breasts with steamed rice and vegetables.

For snacks on the go, try pretzels, raisins, or fruit.

Healthy meals and snacks provide a solid foundation to help your young athlete enjoy his physical fitness.


"It's a cumulative process," Donze says. "Don't eat well only on game days and expect to be at your best. The game-day meal shouldn't be that different than the rest of the week. You should be right in line and feeling good already."

Game-day meals should be based on complex carbohydrates and exclude excessive fat and protein that take longer to digest. The nearer in time to the competition the less food your child should take in. Remember that a well-balanced meal afterward, including some protein and fat, as well as carbohydrates, is equally important for your young athlete.

And remember, when packing his bag for the big day, your child should also pack a water bottle or sports drink.