Feeding the Young Athlete

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Kids were made for movement. Youth sports, dancing, biking, climbing, jumping and active play all contribute to better overall health and fitness, motor skill development, a healthy weight and even academic success.  The goal for school-aged kids and teens is to achieve a minimum of one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day.

For children who compete in sports, the added activity increases the need for calories, nutrients (especially nutrient-rich carbohydrates) and fluids. Too often though, kids in sports are treated to low-performance fuel such as sweetened beverages, fried chips, crackers, candy bars or donuts.

Parents are in a position to step up and set team policies for the increasing problem of empty calorie snacks and treats handed out to kids following every game.  Adults can also set a positive example by including healthy choices as part of post-game snacking.

Keep in mind the following pointers for fueling your active youngster:

  • The more active the child, the more carbohydrate is needed to fuel the work of the muscles. Fatigue, “burn out,” weight loss and lack of endurance can all be signs that body carbohydrate stores are low. Foods such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, whole fruit, brown rice, whole grain pasta, beans, and whole grain versions of bread, bagels or tortillas all provide both nutrients and the carbohydrates needed to fuel exercise or sports.
  • The best way to get all the nutrients you need each day is to eat from every food group. Check out http://www.choosemyplate.gov to learn more about food groups and suggested servings.
  • Skip the meal skipping. Start every day with breakfast and be sure to fuel up with a healthy lunch at school.
  • Find time for snacks that will keep you going. Greek yogurt, sunflower seeds and clementines, carrots and hummus, or a peanut butter sandwich with apple slices are quick, healthy choices.
  • A diet high in fat will weigh you down, especially right before a workout. Fat takes longer to digest than carbohydrate or protein, so avoid greasy foods such as chips, fries and candy bars before practice or games.
  • Be sure to replenish your body after a workout. Give yourself plenty of fluids and a nutritious meal or snack such as a bean and cheese burrito, lean beef vegetable soup or a piece of veggie-loaded pizza.
  • Bars are a quick, easy, non-perishable recovery solution when food is not available. Look for bars with whole ingredients such as oats, whole grains, nuts, seeds and fruit. A good general rule is to look for bars that have around 9-12 grams of protein and fewer than 12 grams of sugar per serving.
  • The nutrient of most immediate concern is water. When exercising, drink before, during and after a workout. Don’t wait until you feel thirsty – at that point, you are already drying up! Sports drinks are only helpful when you are exercising in the heat or participating in activities that last longer than 90 minutes.
  • Watch out for those sneaky liquid calories that you get from sugary soft drinks, sports drinks and sweetened fruit-flavored drinks. Make your liquids count – milk and soy beverages provide important nutrients as well as fluid.

Be sure to download How to fuel active kids for sports & play and include it as part of your child’s sports playbook. This table lays out how you can keep your young athlete well-fed, hydrated, healthy and growing.

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