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Fueling Children for Sports

A good balanced diet for children will help build a foundation for healthy athletes of the future.

Their growing bodies need healthy food to fuel them and when they embark on athletic endeavors, their nutritional needs may change. The demand for fuel can rise dramatically, depending on the activities. For children involved in sports, meals and snacks should provide carbohydrate and protein. Carbohydrate provides quick energy, or fuel, for activity. Protein provides energy for a longer period of time and helps the body rebuild after activity.

Good sports nutrition is all about a balanced diet that includes foods from all of the food groups -- dairy foods, lean meats or beans, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

Food to Refuel

To refuel after activity it is recommended to consume a meal or snack within 30 minutes to an hour of finishing. If it isn’t mealtime a light snack will do the trick. Here are some quick and easy ideas:

  • Chocolate milk
  • Whole-grain crackers and cheese
  • Yogurt with fruit slices for dipping
  • String cheese and a piece of fruit
  • Milk and frozen fruit smoothie
  • Pita bread dipped in hummus
  • Muesli bar dipped in yogurt
Recovery Drinks

Chocolate milk is a great recovery snack, it has the right amounts of carbohydrate and protein to help the body recover quickly after exercise. It’s not expensive and most children love it!

Scientists have evaluated chocolate milk as a post-exercise sports nutrition drink and have identified several reasons why it may be an effective recovery aid: chocolate milk contains a combination of carbohydrates and protein to help replenish exhausted muscles after exercise. It also provides fluids and "electrolytes" such as potassium to assist with rehydration. Additionally, chocolate milk has high-quality protein which could help build lean muscle when combined with exercise. It contains calcium, which is important for growing bodies and strong bones.

What children involved in sport really need to avoid is eating ‘empty calories’. Foods high in sugar will encourage the levels of blood sugar to fluctuate. This will make it difficult to gauge hunger cues and will leave the body in a negative energy slump. Simple choices like replacement of crisps with rice cakes or nuts. Popcorn is another slightly healthier option.

A Balanced Diet for Young Athletes

Snacking between meals in this case is acceptable recommended, but only if the snacks are carefully selected. Components of a healthy diet include:

  • Vitamins and Minerals: Providing children with a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, especially those that are brightly coloured like peppers, strawberries, blueberries. bananas and carrots, will help assure that they get plenty of vitamins and minerals.
  • Calcium and iron rich foods are important minerals for active, growing bodies, so milk, yoghurt, cheese, and green, leafy vegetables all full of calcium.
  • Lean red meat, chicken and tuna, will help children stay energised throughout their activities.
  • Protein: In order to build muscle, there must be adequate protein in a child’s diet. Protein can be found in meat, eggs, poultry, nuts and nut butters, and in soy products. While children should have some protein in each of their meals, more is not necessarily better. Too much protein can lead to calcium depletion, but when portions are small, protein is great for the young sports-minded.
  • Carbohydrates: Popular diets of the past several years have helped to give carbohydrates a bad name, but when chosen wisely, carbs provide good fuel for the body. Processed carbohydrates such as those found in white bread, white rice, or sugar are not nutritionally great, but brown rice and whole grain breads, cereals, and pastas are great for giving children the energy that they need to do well in sports. As with all things, moderation is key.

Hydration is Important!

Even mild dehydration can have children struggling to perform, so parents and coaches need to encourage children to stay properly hydrated before, during, and after an activity. The recommendation is that children drink about 240 milliliters of water every 20-30 minutes during activity. Of course, this amount may need to be adjusted in hot weather or during particularly rigorous workouts. While water is the best choice, some children are not keen so a splash of fruit juice may be added to a large glass of water if it helps them to drink more.

Race Day Recommendations

On the day of a big race, some believe that they should load up on carbohydrates in order to boost energy, while others prefer to skip a meal, hoping that a lighter feeling will increase their speed and agility. In truth, neither is a good practice. Children should eat a healthy, low-fat meal consisting of carbohydrates and protein, at least two hours before the time of the race. Eating right before activity can decrease energy levels while the body is busy trying to digest the meal, but skipping meals can leave children feeling depleted, which is sure to have a negative impact on their ability (and health). Choosing healthy foods a few hours before a race and then supplementing with small snacks is the best plan, with a nutritionally packed meal planned for after the race in order to replenish the body’s lost nutrients. And of course, don’t forget that water bottle!