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Nutrition for Active Kids & Young Athletes

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SuperKids Nutrition caught up with Nancy Clark M.S., RD renowned sports dietitian and author of several books, including Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, 4th edition. Since so many children participate in sports, parents may find themselves wondering how to feed their young athlete. Do they need more calories? More protein? What about sports drinks? Below, Nancy sheds some light on the subject by answering those questions and more.

Could you describe the difference (if any) between an “active child” and a “child athlete?”

It really depends on the age bracket you’re talking about. If your child is in grades 1-3, then they really shouldn’t be doing much more than fun activities and sports; it shouldn’t be about intense competition at that age. Parents should encourage playing and enjoying physical activity. All kids should be an “active child” at this age and their sport should definitely not be a source of stress.

As kids get older, they may get more competitive in their sport; thus, the “child athlete.” This will mean more time is dedicated to practice and the actual competitions will last longer. If your child’s food intake is poor, it will show up in their performance.

What are the most important things to keep in mind when feeding a child athlete/ active child?

  • Make healthful eating a priority. This will mean planning ahead. Parents will want to pack a cooler for their child or children so they can be adequately fueled for their activities.
  • Encourage fruits and vegetables. Fill the fridge and the cooler with easily accessible cut-up fruit and yogurt dip, cut-up veggies and hummus, and apples and peanut butter. These types of snacks encourage healthy eating but are also quick and easy – and kid-approved!
  • Emphasize family meal times. Don’t let organized sports disrupt family meals seven days a week.
  • Decrease all the “engineered foods” such as bars, gels and sports drinks. These are not needed with kids – even active kids. Real food works just fine, as long as your child tolerates it.

So, if the sports drinks, bars and gels aren’t what they should be eating, what should a parent feed their child prior to, during and after a competition such as a soccer game, gymnastics meet or volleyball tournament?

The most important thing is to eat on a regular schedule. Make sure your child has a well-balanced breakfast (ex: low-sugar cereal, milk and a banana). However, some kids can get jittery before competition. If this is the case, keep it light and simple; even low-fat chocolate milk can serve as a pre-competition meal.

Go back the cooler! Pack it with yogurt, turkey sandwiches, apples, orange and watermelon slices, granola bars, vanilla wafers, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and string cheese. Anything that has complex carbohydrates (think: whole grains, fruits, veggies) is a good choice for fueling young athletes.

What should a parent do when their young athlete is also a “picky eater?”

Focus on performance. Just like a car needs gas to go, people need food to “go,” especially when it comes to an athlete. Let your child know that if they want to perform well in their sport, eating is an important part of training – just as important as regular practice. Allow them to choose their own foods and to experiment with what works for them. If the focus is placed on food being the fuel that allows them to perform at their best, they will eventually begin to choose foods that make them feel their best. Find out how you can sneak veggies into everyday food choices.

Many parents are concerned that their child isn’t getting enough protein. What advice could you give to them?

Growing children need to consume adequate protein: 0.5 to 1.0 gram of protein per pound of body weight. While adequate protein is important to build muscles, eating extra protein via supplements will not build bigger muscles. Don’t waste your money! Chicken breast, string cheese, peanut butter and low-fat yogurt and milk are all great sources of protein and are kid-friendly (and wallet-friendly), as well. Check out our healthy protein guide for kids with fun activities, recipes and more.

Do children need sports drinks if they participate in sports? If so, when should they consume them?

As long as your child drinks adequate fluids, he or she does not need a sports drink after competition. Cold water and juicy oranges are fine refreshers. Sports drinks are actually designed to be consumed during exercise longer than an hour. With that said, sports drinks are not always necessary. On days that involve activity that is over an hour, salt replenishment may become necessary. Several pretzels or saltines will do in these circumstances, along with plenty of water and orange or watermelon slices. Your job as a parent is to be sure your child has access to palatable fluids and keep your child hydrated. This might mean a sports drink, but other beverages and snacks can provide needed fluids and carbohydrates.

Young athletes are at higher risk for becoming dehydrated than adults who do the same workout. Children have a greater body surface area in respect to their body weight, so they gain heat faster from the environment than do adults. They also produce more body heat at a given running speed and they sweat less than adults do. (Each sweat gland produces about 40% less sweat than an adult’s.) This means: Drink frequently during exercise to prevent dehydration!

Could you give any tips to parents who have more than one child involved in sports and do most of their eating in the car between practices and events?

Children often eat poorly because their parents have failed to plan for better choices. For example, let’s look at the rush to get to the event. With fluids, try to keep the refrigerator stocked with bottles of water, lemonade and juice. Grab them and go; you’ll reduce consumption of soda and sports drinks. For those in-the-car snacks/ mini-meals, stash granola bars, pretzels, animal crackers, banana and peanut butter sandwiches, fig cookies, apples and yogurt, or low-sugar cereal in the car; you’ll reduce trips to the snack shack at the event or practice for candy and chips.

If fast food is unavoidable, look for the more healthful options. Thick crust veggie pizza or bean burritos are great choices for active kids. Most fast food restaurants offer a healthful option — if you aren’t too hungry to choose it. Packing along a post-game recovery food that doubles as a pre-dinner appetite tamer (bagel, yogurt, pretzels) can help reduce the temptation to fill up on fries, double bacon cheeseburgers, fried chicken, etc.

How can parents get their children to eat less junk food, often so prevalent at event venues?

One trick to reducing your children’s intake of not-so-good foods is to have available a healthful “second lunch” after school/ before sports. Enjoying a bean burrito, English muffin pizza, cereal with milk, fruit smoothie or a sandwich is preferable to the standard routine of munching on candy bars, cookies and chips. A healthful “second lunch” is particularly important for kids who eat poorly at school lunch. These healthy apple cheddar pitzas (pita pizzas) make a great after-school mini meal.

It’s also important to note that, despite popular belief, kids (and their parents) do not have to eat “perfectly” to have a good, healthful diet. Most active children can meet their nutrient needs within 1,200 to 1,500 calories through a variety of wholesome foods. Hence, they do have space for some “junk” — in moderation. Ten percent of an active child’s diet can be “fun food.” Your children may actually have trouble getting adequate calories if you strictly limit treats.

Keep in mind that kids don’t naturally overeat unless they feel deprived or denied. If certain foods are “taboo,” the child may over-indulge whenever that food is available since it’s the “last chance” they will get to eat it (think: birthday cake or cookies). Instead of labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” allow your child to self-regulate their food intake. If the parent has provided a healthful food environment with the occasional treat, the child will get the nutrient he needs while not feeling like he’s deprived.

How should parents address a child who wants to “make weight” or obtain a certain body type for their particular sport?

Dieting is standard among young figure skaters, dancers, gymnasts, runners and athletes in sports that emphasize leanness. But the pressure to acquire the “perfect” body can bode trouble ahead if the dieter has issues about being “not good enough,” a poor self-image and low self-esteem. All too often, diets are not just about weight. Also, dieting increases the risk for developing a full-blown eating disorder.

As a parent, you need to downplay body size as an important currency of worth and teach your daughter or son to love her/himself from the inside out. Never comment about the size of large children; your child will conclude she must be thin to be valued and loved, and he or she will start dieting. This is particularly important with young girls who are coping with body changes that come with puberty during their struggle to be the best at their sport. Their efforts to control weight may lead to a frustration, guilt, despair and failure–and an eating disorder.

What should a parent do if their child is overweight?

Don’t forget that kids often grow out and up. Some children may appear to be overweight when their bodies are merely gearing up for a growth spurt; they will eventually gravitate toward a weight that is healthy for them. Appropriate eating and activity are the keys to a healthful weight. If your child appears to be overweight, provide food choices that are healthful and engage your child in active play. If the house is filled with potato chips and ice cream, then that is what your child will choose. If, however, fresh fruit and cut-up veggies and hummus are provided, for example, then that is what will be chosen. Parental modeling of a healthful, active lifestyle is always helpful.

Often, overweight children can be embarrassed about engaging in sports. If this is the case, try a kids’ strength training class or try playing with them. Essentially, just get your child moving! If activity is fun for them, they will want to do it.

Any final words for our readers?

Food is important; eating is not an option. I would encourage all members of the family to not treat meal planning as an afterthought. Give it the attention it deserves and you’ll find that with a few extra minutes of planning, you’ll have quick, healthy meals both on the table and on-the-go.

Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD offers private consultations at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill, MA (617-383-6100). She is author of the new Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, 4th Edition and her Food Guide for New Runners: Getting It Right From the Start. Both are available via www.nancyclarkrd.com. To learn the latest and the greatest on sports nutrition follow Nancy’s blog: http://community.active.com/blogs/NancyClarkRD.

You can view all of our nutrition and health expert interviews here.



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About the Author

Lauren is a registered dietitian specializing in eating disorders and sports nutrition in the Greater Los Angeles area. Lauren is passionate about normalizing and enhancing the eating experience and works to encourage each of her clients to "taste their food with all five senses." Lauren also teaches the cooking classes at ANJ, where she strives to create a fun, community atmosphere while empowering each client to truly experience the food as they create meals for themselves and each other.


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