Kids love sports…and these days youth sports are taken VERY seriously. So shouldn’t we pay attention to what these kids are eating? After all, food is fuel, the fuel that sustains them during long and arduous practices, games and tournaments. Here are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about feeding young athletes:
- Young Athletes are NOT like regular kids
Young athletes need high quality fuel, and a lot of it! These kids/teens are not only spending lots of calories in order to grow, they have significant additional demands to keep up with their sports. Young athletes need to eat a lot and eat often. If they do not give their bodies adequate fuel, they will have less energy than their peers, they are more likely to get sick or injured, and their training will be inadequate.
- Consistency is the KEY
It is important for young athletes to realize that they need to pay attention to what they eat throughout the entire season, not just before games. It’s nice to think that it’s OK to eat junk all week as long as they have a good “pre-game” meal. Unfortunately, this is not how it works!
- It’s all in the Glycogen
Glycogen is our energy source; it’s what prevents athletes from “running out of gas,” or “hitting the wall.” However, it is important to realize that this glycogen (or stored energy), is produced in the body 2-3 daysBEFORE it’s actually used. This means that the meal they eat today will fuel their workout or game in 2-3 days! I always tell my teams: ” The regular training diet is more important than the pre-game meal.”
- What should young athletes Eat every day?
On a daily basis, it is important that young athletes eat a variety of foods and eat at least 3 meals and 2 snacks with no more than 4 hours between meals. Meals should consist of mostly carbohydrates (from fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains), a small amount of protein and some healthy fats. Check out my Blog on High Protein Diets for Young Athletes http://doctorjacq.com/high-protein-diets-young-athletes-yes/ And don’t forget the fluids! (more on this later). Foods to Avoid: foods high in saturated fats and sugars like candy, chips, cookies, and most fast foods.
- Pre-Game Eating
Make sure your athlete eats a meal 2-4 hours before his/her event and starts hydrating at that time. The meal should consist of mostly carbohydrates with a small amount of protein. Some examples include oatmeal with honey, raisins or other dried fruit, whole grain cereal + milk + banana, whole wheat sandwich, roll or wrap with turkey, chicken or ham, chicken noodle/vegetable soup with whole wheat bread. If the event is early in the morning, then make it a snack, but DON’T skip breakfast! It can be something small, like a piece of toast with nut butter and a glass of juice, a banana, granola bar, a small smoothie, yogurt or even an instant breakfast (if all else fails!). And don’t forget to start hydrating!
- Recovery Meals
Recovery snacks are an essential part of sports nutrition. This is when Glycogen is formed (the one that fuels your game in a few days), so it’s important to replenish it every day, especially since our kids are training 5-6 days a week! Muscles act like sponges during the 30 minutes after exercise and have the ability to build glycogen 1 and a 1/2 times faster than at other times, so take advantage of this “golden window!” I find it amusing (not really), when I see kids on the field who have been working hard and immediately after are given pizza, cookies, and juice boxes! Much research has gone into this specific time of an athlete’s training, and the consensus is that recovery snacks should have a ratio of 4:1 carbohydrates to protein. Good examples are crackers + cheese + grapes, pita bread + hummus + veggies, smoothies with greek yogurt (I freeze them into popsicles during the summer) and PB & J and a banana. Another option used by sports trainers for years is chocolate milk, which is convenient, easy for kids to drink (since some of them might not be hungry for food immediately after the game), and has a ratio close to 4:1 carbs:protein. For those who drink dairy, aim for organic, low-fat chocolate milk. Of course fluids are very important during this window too!
Sip! Sip! Sip! Young athletes should drink on a schedule, NOT by thirst! By the time your player is thirsty, he/she could be up to 3% dehydrated! They should sip starting a few hours before the game, rather than chugging 16 ounces before going on the field. Water is best, but there are situations which call for electrolyte replacement. Aim for 16 ounces 2-3 hours before the game, another 8-12 ounces 1-2 hours before the game, and 8 ounces within an hour of play. Remember, the brain is mostly water, so staying well hydrated will not only help with their muscles but it’s responsible for mental alertness and quick decision-making on the field. For details, go to my Hydration in Sports Blog http://doctorjacq.com/hydration-sports-much-keeping-kids-hydrated/
It makes sense to understand the importance of rest when playing sports, but we should realize the extent of it. Rest to me means 2 things: 1) kids and teens should get enough sleep, because they rest their bodies but also because this is an important time in their growth and development. Kids 7-10 years old should sleep 8-10 hours a night, and kids 13 and older should aim for at least 8-9 hours a night. This is a struggle at our house since my daughter is in middle school with a good amount of homework and needs to be up at 4:30am. She goes to bed at 7:45pm! 2) “Rest” also means when kids are playing tournaments, especially away tournaments, they need to rest and recover their muscles while away. They can take a hot bath, do stretching or yoga, or simply turn out the lights at a decent time!
Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you live in the Orange County area and would like me to come speak to your child’s team!
For more meal ideas, go to http://doctorjacq.com/recipes/ and Keep “Making the Healthier Choice the Easier Choice!”