Nutrition for Athletically Active Children

A nutritious, balanced diet is essential for good health from early on. This is even more true for growing kids who are athletically active. Getting a rich daily supply of nutrients assures the muscles to be fueled with glycogen at times of strenuous activity. Foods high in complex carbohydrates, moderate in protein and low in fat and sugar are best suited for pre- and post-exercise meals. Drinking lots of fluids should be encouraged before, during and after exercise.

Physically Active Children
Can Have Different Dietary Needs

Foods to “fuel up”
Meals that are nutritious but not filling should be consumed by athletically active children two to three hours prior to a sports event or a training session to allow enough time for the stomach to empty out. Athletic performance on a full stomach can have adverse effects on both the muscles and the digestive tract, which may result in an upset stomach or worse.

Carbohydrates are the most important source of fuel in a young athlete’s diet. Carbohydrates come from plant foods. Good sources of complex carbohydrates are found in pasta, brown rice, whole grain cereals (not too high in fiber), tortillas, whole-wheat breads and rolls, potatoes, corn, peas, bananas, apples and oranges.

All of these foods are easily digestible. A quick snack closer to the time of performance can give your young athlete an extra boost but may also cause sluggishness.

Foods for quick “re-fuel”
Immediately after a sports event, training session or other strenuous activity, children must have sufficient amounts of water to prevent dehydration. Instead of offering plain water, you can use diluted fruit juices to quickly increase the glycogen levels in the muscles. Snacks rich in carbohydrates are also good choices. So are bananas, apple slices and orange segments, fruit yogurts, pretzels, whole-wheat mini bagels or English muffins.

Foods for “complete recovery”
Two to three hours after a sports event or training session, you should follow the same dietary guidelines given for pre-performance meals to restore spent glycogen in the muscles. More protein and fat can now be included as well.

Lean sources of protein are important to repair the wear and tear of muscle tissue that occurs with physical strain. Roasted, skinless chicken or turkey, lean roast beef, grilled fish (not fried), yogurt, low-fat cheese, low-fat milk and hard boiled or scrambled eggs are all good choices.

Advise your children to choose wisely if the team stops at a pizza parlor or a fast-food place to debrief or celebrate. The young athletes may be ravenous and eat too quickly. Filling up on empty calories without much nutritional value is never a good idea and even less so for young bodies that need to recover from strenuous exercise.

Staying hydrated
Avoiding dehydration at all times is vital whenever your children are physically active. Frequent water breaks, especially in warm weather, are a must. Encourage your kids to drink before, during and after practice or events. Water should be the beverage of choice to replace body fluids. If your child finds plain water unappetizing, try adding small amounts of juice or lemon slices.

Water BoyThe type, amount, timing and even the temperature of the fluids you offer your kids can affect how well their bodies are able to re-hydrate. Cold fluids are absorbed faster than warm ones. Sports drinks with relatively low sugar content (no more than 15 to 18 grams of carbohydrate per cup) are suitable for fluid replacement as well. Dilute fruit juices and other high sugar beverages (at least one cup of water to one cup high sugar beverage). Many of these have a high carbohydrate content, which can slow down the absorption process of water into the body and possibly lead to stomach cramps, nausea and diarrhea. Avoid caffeinated beverages, such as cola drinks, tea and coffee. They act as diuretics and dehydrate the body even further.

A matter of timing
About one hour before an athletic event your child should drink 8 to 16 ounces of water and another 8 to 10 ounces approximately 15 minutes before the event begins.

Even during the event, your child must have enough water breaks. Many children do not feel the need to drink lots of fluids during exercise because they are not able yet to discern subtle signals from their bodies. It’s your job as a coach or parent to ensure that the young athletes drink 3 to 4 ounces of water every 15 to 20 minutes while they’re on the court or the field. If events last longer than 90 minutes, offer 8 to 10 ounces of diluted sports drinks or diluted fruit drinks every 20 to 30 minutes.

After an athletic event, kids must re-hydrate by drinking at least 16 ounces of water or diluted sports- or fruit drinks for every pound they lost in body weight as a result of their activities.

Be advised that these are only a few rough guidelines. A child’s age, body size, fitness level, the intensity and duration of the activity, temperature, humidity, altitude and many other factors can all affect the extent of dehydration.

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