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  • Denise Scott

Feeding Your Child Athlete

Keeping your child healthy and well-hydrated helps to optimize sports performance. They need adequate calories for their given sport and constant hydration, preferably with non-sugary beverages - water, water, water.


This article will give guidelines to ensure optimum nutrition for their growing bodies and ensure they get the necessary nutrients. I will also give ideas for healthful pre- and post-workout snacks. Read on!


Adolescent boy and girl soccer players running on field. Good nutrition is vital for kids' optimal growth and performance.


Balancing energy intake with energy output is crucial. Too much energy (food) intake results in being overweight, while too little intake or too much expenditure (activity) can result in weight loss, decreased performance, delayed puberty, menstrual irregularities, fatigue, and loss of muscle mass. 


Recommended daily calorie requirements are the same for boys and girls up to age 10 (before puberty). 


Ages 4-6: 1600-1800 and  

Ages 7-10: 2000 calories.

Ages 11-14: boys 2500 calories

girls 2200 calories 

Ages 15-18: boys 3000 calories

girls 2200 calories. 


Hydration


Young athlete hydrating with water. Water is the best hydrator and critical in preventing dehydration.


Hydration is vital, especially during warm weather months. Even mild dehydration impacts performance. Children often do not drink enough water. Water is the best hydrator for kids, not sports drinks. Your athlete should be hydrating daily. If they wait until they are thirsty, they are likely already dehydrated. Heat and high humidity determine how much one sweats, and more volume is needed than during cooler months. 


An easy parameter to self-monitor is to look at the color of their urine. The urine should be pale yellow, like lemonade, as a sign that they are adequately hydrated. If it is dark yellow, they should keep drinking water until it is lighter. They should also be drinking enough to urinate every 3-4 hours. 


General Rules of Thumb:

  1. For activities less than or up to an hour, water is adequate.

  2. 2-3 hours before the activity, your athlete should drink about 500 ml of water or about 2 cups. 

  3. During sports, the recommendation is 150-300 ml or 5-8 ounces every 30 minutes.

  4. After the activity, a child should drink 1-2 liters over the next several hours, or roughly 4-8 cups. Another guideline is 4 ml/kg body weight/hour or 2 ml per pound per hour.

  5. For activities lasting longer than an hour or during high heat and humidity, sports drinks (not energy drinks - sports drinks have fluid and electrolytes, not caffeine) can be used in addition to water to replace sweat and electrolytes. Beverages with caffeine or carbonation should be avoided. Water should be consumed with the sports drink to aid the absorption of carbohydrates and prevent stomach cramping.

Children in daily sports should consume 1.5-2 liters of water daily, or 6-9 cups, especially if they participate in outdoor sports.


Macronutrients


Macronutrients provide energy and help to build and maintain muscle.


Carbohydrates (CHOs) are the primary fuel source and should make up about half of their food intake (45-65%). CHOs are converted into glucose, which provides energy. This should be from grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy. At least half of their grains (bread, pasta, rice) should be from whole grains. 


Protein helps to build and repair muscle. Protein should comprise 15-25% or about ¼ of total daily calories. An estimate of the amount of protein a child should have is to multiply their weight in kilograms by 0.8, or their weight in pounds by 0.5. This will equal the grams of protein needed daily.


The following are guidelines by age:

Years Daily Protein in grams

1-3 13 

4-8 19 

9-13 34 

14-18 girls 46

14-18 boys 52


Protein sources include lean meats, poultry, seafood, nuts, nut butter, eggs, milk, yogurt, beans and legumes, tofu, and quinoa.


Fats should comprise 25-35% (¼-⅓) of their daily calories. Focus on mono- and poly-unsaturated fats; saturated fats should be less than 10% of the diet. Processed foods and “junk” food fall into this category of saturated fats. Healthy fat sources include lean meats and poultry, dairy, seafood, nuts and seeds, and cooking oils such as olive and avocado. 


Micronutrients


The primary micronutrients to focus on during these growing years are calcium, vitamin D, and iron. Older children, especially girls, often stop drinking milk when it is vital to have enough calcium and vitamin D during their growth spurt. 


Calcium can be obtained from dairy products, some vegetables such as broccoli and spinach, and grains fortified with calcium. Children 4-8 need 1000 mg; those 9-18 need 1300-1500 mg.


Vitamin D is challenging to get in adequate amounts, especially for kids who don’t drink milk. Children and teens require 600-800 IU of vitamin D daily. 


Both calcium and vitamin D can be given in combination in chewable form. They can also be taken separately in pills that are swallowed. 


Iron deficiency is not unusual in adolescent athletes as it can be hard to get adequate amounts in the diet, especially in menstruating females. Female athletes, distance runners, and vegetarians are at greater risk for iron deficiency anemia and should be screened for this. Low iron stores or anemia can impact energy and performance.


Dietary sources of iron include lean meats, eggs, leafy green vegetables, and fortified grains. Animal sources of iron (heme iron) are better absorbed than plant sources (non-heme iron). Taking vitamin C with iron-rich foods can help improve absorption; however, a supplement may be needed, especially for those who don’t eat meat and for menstruating girls. 


Snack Time!


If meal time occurs before an activity, it should be eaten about 3 hours earlier to allow time for digestion. This meal should not be high in fiber or fat since these delay stomach emptying. For early morning practices, a cup of chocolate milk or liquid meal one to 2 hours prior and then breakfast after works well. Pre-game snacks should be eaten 1-2 hours before competition or practice. 


Pre-activity snack ideas:


One hour prior (carbs):

Fruit with a high water content, such as orange slices, melons, watermelon, pears, applesauce, bananas, dried fruit, dry cereal.


2-3 hours prior (protein + carbs):

Half a bagel with nut butter, granola bar, cheese stick with crackers, cereal with low-fat milk, half a sandwich, graham crackers with nut butter, yogurt with berries or granola. 


Recovery snacks should be given roughly 30 minutes after exercise and every 30-60 minutes for the next couple of hours to replace glycogen stores. Snacks should include protein and carbohydrates, such as peanut butter on crackers or bread, yogurt with fruit, hummus on whole wheat bread, cheese with crackers and fruit, etc. The snack need not be more than a few hundred calories or can be a meal if mealtime. 


A variety of snacks for pre- and post- workouts, including fruit, nuts, cereal, boiled eggs, hummus, and veggies.


Recovery snack ideas:

Fruit and yogurt smoothie

Protein shake

Chocolate milk

Milk and cereal

Cheese sticks with fruit

Cottage cheese on toast

Yogurt with fruit and nuts

Nut butter and honey sandwich

Hummus with pita bread or vegetables

Hard-boiled eggs with toast or crackers

Tortilla rollup with turkey and cheese

Protein bar


If your child is a picky eater, it is probably worth supplementing with a daily multivitamin with iron. Vitamins are best given with food or at mealtime to increase absorption. 

Once girls enter puberty, I usually advise a multivitamin with iron and a calcium/vitamin D supplement, especially if they don’t drink milk. 


Good nutrition and hydration will keep your young athlete healthy, strong, and performing optimally. 


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