TIPS FOR ACTIVE CHILD/TEEN
Active children and teens need a strong dietary foundation and lots of energy. Anyone who knows young athletes knows they can get hungry … and often! It is important that they eat healthy well-balanced meals and remain hydrated in order to achieve optimal health and performance. Sports nutrition for teenagers is a bit of a specialized area. Young athletes playing high level sports burn calories very quickly. If they don’t eat enough of the right types of nutrients, their performance can decrease and may even result in possible growth problems. Healthy eating allows a teen athlete to achieve peak performance without compromising overall health.
Kids who eat healthy, well-balanced meals and snacks will get the nutrients needed to perform well in sports. The child athlete, however, will have higher energy and fluid requirements. Kids and teens who are involved in all-day competitions or strenuous endurance sports (like rowing, cross-country running, or competitive swimming) that can involve 1½ to 2 hours or more of activity at a time, in particular, may need to consume more food to keep up with increased energy demands.
Most athletes will naturally eat the right amount of food their bodies need. Besides getting the right amount of calories, it takes a variety of nutrients to keep young athletes performing at their best:
- Vitamins and minerals: Kids need a variety of vitamins and minerals. Calcium and iron are two important minerals for athletes. Calcium helps build strong bones to resist breaking and stress fractures. Calcium-rich foods include low-fat dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese, as well as leafy green vegetables such as broccoli. Iron helps carry oxygen to all the different body parts that need it. Iron-rich foods include lean meat, chicken, tuna, salmon, eggs, dried fruits, leafy green vegetables, and fortified whole grains.
- Protein: Protein helps build and repair muscles, and most kids get plenty of it through a balanced diet. Protein-rich foods include fish, lean meat and poultry, dairy products, beans, nuts, and soy products. Too much protein can lead to dehydration and calcium loss.
- Carbohydrates: Carbs provide energy for the body. Some diet plans have urged weight-conscious adults to steer clear of carbs, but for a young athlete they’re an important source of fuel. There’s no need for “carb loading” (eating a lot of carbs in advance of a big game), but without carbs in their diet, kids will be running on empty. When you’re choosing carbs, look for whole-grain foods like whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, whole-grain bread and cereal, and plenty of fruits and vegetables.
It’s important for young athletes to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration, which can zap strength, energy, and coordination and lead to heat-related illness. Even mild dehydration can affect athletic performance.
Thirst is not a reliable sign of hydration status, so experts recommend that kids drink water or other fluids before and every 15 to 20 minutes during physical activity. It’s important to drink afterward to restore fluid lost through sweat.
Although many sports drinks are available, plain water is usually enough to keep kids hydrated. Sports drinks are designed to provide energy and replace electrolytes — such as sodium and potassium — that athletes lose in sweat. They can be a good choice for kids who participate in strenuous physical activity for more than 1 hour, because after exercising for 60 to 90 minutes, the body has used up its readily available sources of energy. Sports drinks are also a good alternative for kids who participate in sports but won’t drink enough water. However, it is best to make your own (refer to our sport drink article)
Diluted juices are another option, but avoid sugary drinks and carbonated beverages that can upset the stomach. The bottom line is that for most young athletes, water is the best choice for hydration. After the activity, carbohydrates and electrolytes can be replenished.
Here some tips on how to guide your teenage athlete towards optimal sports performance:
- Eat a diet that is about 70% complex carbohydrates – including fruit, vegetables, brown rice, whole grain, organic pastas, quinoa, and carrots – to achieve maximum carbohydrate storage. Lean proteins such as organic chicken, pastured eggs and small amounts of grass fed beef are critical. Stay away from the bad carbs: white pasta, white breads, junk cereals, and off the shelf fruit juice.
- Eat fat. It sounds crazy, but good quality, healthy fats are a source of fuel for your body and are strongly advised – smart choices are avocados, natural organic peanut / raw almond butter on an apple.
- Eat a good breakfast! Every day, but especially on game days. Oatmeal, a fruit smoothie with vegan protein, scrambled eggs.
- Eat a meal no less than three hours before exercising.
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Drink 700 ml of water two to three hours before the sporting event, during the event on breaks, and especially afterwards to replenish the body. Beware of sports drinks – they can be loaded with sugar, creepy preservatives and artificial food colorings.
- Pre-game; eat a meal containing complex carbohydrates such as whole wheat pasta, or brown rice with vegetables. Don’t weigh your teen down with heavy proteins or unhealthy fats. If they can’t eat a full meal because they have a nervous feeling in their stomach, a small snack such as a banana or oatmeal is still important.
- Avoid SUGAR before exercise – it can speed up dehydration. Your body will thank you later! I know it’s tempting because of the instant energy it provides, but the subsequent crash can be depleting.
- Stay away from fast food. It can make your teenage athlete sluggish and it seriously affects performance. Better “fast food” choices who have healthier options PLUS they have eliminated unhealthy additives and preservatives across the board. Save the occasional Burger House for a post-game celebration.
- Multivitamins are essential! Teenage athletes just don’t get what they need from their food—even if they are perfect eaters. A daily multivitamin is key, along with high quality Fish Oil and a Probiotic.
There are many benefits to a child being physically active. As they are moving through a stage of rapid growth and development it is important that children consume enough total energy and nutrients. Carbohydrate requirements during physical activity in children seem to differ compared to adults and fat may be more useful during children’s exercise. Physically active children should also consume adequate amounts of liquids as they have a higher risk of dehydration and heat stress compared to adults.
- Nutritional Consideration for the child athlete. Canadian Journal of applied physiology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11897894.
- Objectively measured physical activity and sedentary time in European adolescents: The HELENA study. Am J Epidemiol, doi:10.1093/aje/kwr068.
- Petrie HJ et al. (2004). Nutritional concerns for the child and adolescent competitor. Nutrition 20:620-631.
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