Sports Nutrition for Kids
Updated: Apr 24
Girls' soccer team, an example of organized sports for kids
Now that school sports are in full swing, I have put together some recommendations for keeping your child healthy and well-hydrated so they can perform their best.
Nutrition is vital in childhood athletics. Proper nutrition helps performance and ensures your athlete gets the nutrients they need for their growing and changing bodies. A healthy diet helps your athlete grow properly and perform optimally.
Here is a rundown of dietary details to be aware of for your athlete.
Young athletes need:
macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats)
micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
Balancing energy intake with energy expenditure is important. 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 calorie requirements are the same for boys and girls up to age 10 or before puberty.
Ages 4-6, 1400-1800 calories
Ages 7-10, 1800-2000 calories
Ages 11-14, boys require about 2200-2600 calories and girls 1800-2200 calories
Ages 15-18, boys need 2500-3000 calories while girls need 1800-2400 calories.
The number of calories depends on a child's activity level, those that are very active need a greater number of calories.
Young basketball player drinking water to hydrate
Hydration is of utmost importance, 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 mildly dehydrated. Heat and high humidity determine how much one sweats; more fluid volume is required in heat than during cooler months.
I discussed with patients an easy parameter to 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 need to keep drinking water until it is light in color. They should also be drinking enough to urinate every 3-4 hours.
Some general rules of thumb:
For activities less than or up to an hour, water is adequate.
2-3 hours before the activity, your athlete should drink about 500 ml of water or 2 cups.
During sports, the recommendation is 150-300 ml or 5-8 ounces every 20-30 minutes.
After the activity, a child should drink roughly 4 ml/kg body weight/hour*. In general, 1/2 to 1 cup of water an hour should be adequate. During hot weather sports season, for teens, drinking 1-2 liters of water daily should keep them hydrated.
*(To convert weight in pounds to kilograms, divide by 2.2. For example, a 55 pound child weighs 25 kg and would need 100 ml (4 x 25) or about 3 ounces an hour to rehydrate. One ounce = 30 ml).
5. For activities lasting longer than an hour, or in 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. Caffeine intake can increase blood pressure and body temperature and this can be dangerous in a hot environment.
Water should be consumed in addition to the sports drink, to aid in the absorption of carbohydrates and prevent stomach cramping.
Children should hydrate daily and use their urine color as a measure of hydration.
Kids get their energy from fuel provided by macronutrients.
Carbohydrates (CHOs) are the primary fuel source and should comprise roughly 50% or half of their food intake (45-65%). CHOs are converted into glucose which provides energy. This should be in the form of grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy. At least half of their grains (bread, pasta, rice) should be in the form of whole grains.
Protein helps to build and repair muscle. Protein should comprise 15-25% of total intake. 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 equals how many ounces of protein they need daily. More competitive athletes and boys in puberty can increase their protein intake to 1-1.5 ounces per kg body weight.
Protein sources include lean meats, poultry, seafood, nuts, nut butter, dairy, beans and legumes, tofu, and grains.
Fats should comprise 25-35% of total daily intake. Saturated fats should be no more than 10% of the diet. Processed foods and “junk” food would fall under the 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.
The most important micronutrients to be aware of during these growing years are calcium, vitamin D, and iron. Older children, especially girls, often stop drinking milk when they need to have enough calcium and vitamin D for 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 can be more difficult to get in adequate amounts, especially for kids who don’t drink milk.
Children need 600-1000 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.
Good 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 or animal products.
Recovery snacks should be given roughly 30-60 minutes after exercise to replace glycogen stores. Snacks should include protein and carbohydrates, and need not be more than a few hundred calories or can be a meal if at mealtime.
Recovery snack ideas:
Fruit and yogurt smoothie
Cheese sticks with fruit
Nut butter on crackers or whole wheat bread
Milk and cereal
Yogurt with fruit and nuts
Hummus with pita bread or vegetables
Hard-boiled eggs with toast or crackers
Before an activity, a meal should be eaten about 3 hours earlier to allow time for digestion. This meal should not be high in fiber or fat since these will delay the emptying of the stomach.
Pre-game snacks should be eaten 1-2 hours before competition or practice.
Fruit with a high water content is a good snack - orange slices, watermelon or other melons, pears, applesauce, or bananas - if only an hour before or between competitions.
If 2-3 hours before a competition, a snack with protein and carbs is better, such as half a bagel with nut butter, granola bar, cheese stick with crackers, or cereal with low-fat milk.
For early morning practices, a cup of chocolate milk or liquid meal one to 2 hours before practice and breakfast after works well.
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 their 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.
That's a lot of information but the bottom line is keep your child well-hydrated and provide a well-rounded diet with nutritious snacks for a healthy athlete!