Many parents don’t know what foods are best for their young athletes. These 6 sports nutrition rules for kids lay the groundwork to a healthy diet and a thriving athlete.
My cousin recently texted me to ask about hydration for her 8 year old son, who plays baseball in the Florida heat. She said that many of the other parents were sending sports drinks to practice with their kids, and she wasn’t sure that this was appropriate.
Sports nutrition for kids is tricky. It’s not exactly the same as adult nutrition, since children are growing and have different nutrient needs. And many young athletes need more calories than their less active counterparts. [Read: Best Foods For Young Athletes Who Need To Gain Weight].
To clear up some of the confusion for parents of young athletes, here are 6 sports nutrition rules to get you started.
- A varied and healthy diet is extremely important for a growing athlete. Although your child is playing sports and burning a ton of calories, that doesn’t give them a license to eat whatever they want–i.e. burgers, fries, cookies and candy. Growing children need several key nutrients, like calcium for bone health, Vitamin C for immune system development, iron for growth, and protein for muscle growth and repair. These nutrients are only found in healthy foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and proteins. Child athletes put their bodies through more wear and tear than less active children, so they need to be even more diligent about eating healthy foods for growth and development. [Download this list of the 75 Best Foods For Athletes To Get Some Ideas.]
- Hydration is incredibly important! Children get hotter faster than adults because they have a greater body surface area for their body weight, which means they take in heat from the environment faster than adults. They should drink very frequently during exercise and cold water is the perfect refresher. A good rule of thumb is that children need about 4 ounces (or ½ cup) of water for every 20 minutes of play. Make sure you teach your children about the importance of hydration, or they might just forget to drink all together! Fresh fruit is also high in water and contribute to hydration–orange slice breaks during practice should be encouraged!
- Sport drinks are not necessary. Let’s face it–kids love sport drinks because they are sweet. If you provide them, they will drink them. I’ve read a lot about this and experts don’t agree on whether or not kids need sports drinks. In my professional opinion, sport drinks are ONLY necessary for intense activity lasting longer than an hour. You can read all about sport drinks here, but my overall opinion is that kids don’t need them or need them very rarely. For exercise lasting longer than an hour, you can replace fluid and salt losses with water and a salty snack, like pretzels or saltines.
- Carbohydrates are the best energy source. Basically, carbs are what make athletes “go”. They are the fuel for the car. A child athlete’s diet should be balanced and consist of healthy carbs, like fruit and veggie sticks and whole grain crackers, breads, and cereals. Healthy carbs should be consumed 2-3 hours before practice to maintain energy. Think– a sandwich or piece of fruit before practice.
- Lean protein repairs muscles. Because children are growing, their muscles are still developing. Sports cause muscle breakdown, and proteins aid in muscle repair. While it’s an emerging trend among kids to take protein supplements, this should definitely be discouraged. There are so many healthful protein food choices that kids can eat and enjoy, such as peanut butter, low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese sticks, chicken, turkey, and fish. A turkey sandwich after practice is the perfect amount of protein to repair worn out muscles!
- Fats are essential…in moderation. Did you know that certain fats, like omega-3 found in salmon, nuts, avocados and oil, are actually essential for brain health and development? But other fats, like fried foods and fatty meats, don’t add any nutritional value to the diet of your child athlete. As your young athlete grows, their appetite might grow with them. Incorporate some healthy fats into your child athlete’s diet to satiate their ever hungry stomach and keep them satisfied.