Kids don’t always eat well when left to their own devices, but a focus on nutrition is always important, particularly if you’re raising a young athlete.
Let’s face it — kids are good at a lot of things, but “eating nutritious foods” isn’t exactly high on that list. When they’re on their own, especially as teenagers, you’ll often find them gravitating more toward Doritos and McDonald’s than a plate heaping with vegetables, lean meat and whole grains.
“I get picky eaters all the time,” says Cara Axelrod, registered dietitian and certified sports nutritionist with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “They want to eat the same thing over and over again and are afraid to try new things. This could limit their nutrient intake, and they can develop deficiencies.”
Of course, better nutrition is important for all kids. But if your children are athletes, eating a healthy, balanced diet may be even more critical. The Nemours Foundation notes that most kids tend to get the amount of food that they need. The problem with kids, particularly teenagers, is that they often don’t eat at the right time to get the energy they require for competition. They also tend to not get the nutrients to use as fuel for energy, strong bones and an overall balanced diet.
To get to the bottom of what your young athletes need to perform their best, we spoke with Axelrod and Dr. Carolyn Kienstra, a pediatric sports medicine physician with the University of Miami Sports Medicine Institute. They helped us identify the problems they often see with young athlete nutrition and possible solutions.
How Kids Eat
In her work, Axelrod has noticed quite a few problems among teens that can lead to diminished athletic performance. “First, many young athletes skip breakfast,” she says. “And when I get athletes who are skipping meals and snacks, they often experience extreme hunger, cravings and then will tend to overeat whatever is at hand, such as pizza or Taco Bell.”
The fallout from this cycle of eating poorly, notes Axelrod, is low energy, decreased focus and poor performance on the field. But the problems can be even greater. “Athletes who do not consume enough energy can experience stunted growth, delayed puberty, loss of muscle mass, menstrual irregularities and are at an increased risk for injury,” she says.
How Young Athletes Should Eat
Though teens and other young athletes often don’t make nutrition their primary focus, it’s critical during this time when both their body and their brain are still growing and developing. Axelrod says that it all starts at breakfast. “By consuming a nutrient-dense breakfast, this essentially starts the day off right,” she says. “Then, by eating ever few hours, they can keep their energy levels stable.”
When it comes to the components that make up a young athlete’s daily diet, the Nemours Foundation notes that protein, carbohydrates and nutrients such as calcium and iron are all critically important. “Carbohydrates are primary energy sources for the brain and skeletal muscle,” says Axelrod. “Quality carbohydrates sources include whole grains, fruit and milk. Protein is also important for young athletes, as it is builds muscle, fights infection, helps wounds heal and reduces post-exercise muscle soreness. Quality protein sources include chicken, fish and lean beef.”
Dr. Kienstra adds that young athletes should also not skimp on the fruits and veggies. “Fruits and vegetables are the best package for these vitamins and minerals, as they also have many other components that are beneficial,” she says. “When you take the vitamins and minerals as supplements instead of eating healthy, you lose these important chemicals.”
Game & Practice Day Nutrition
When there’s a game or a practice coming up, a young athlete can further optimize performance by focusing on the right foods at the right times. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends balanced, carb-heavy meals 2 to 3 hours before game time, while a snack such as a granola bar is great any from 30 minutes or an hour before.
And don’t forget recovery, says Dr. Kienstra. “For the food related to games and practice, it’s also important to consume a mix of carbohydrates and protein after a game or practice, ideally within 30 minutes, for recovery,” she says.
Of course, young athletes are likely going to need a little prodding to start adopting these healthy habits, and that’s where parents can step in. “Parents can help by having their kids help in the kitchen,” says Axelrod. “By creating healthy meals together, the kids are usually more accepting of the healthy foods. Also, by stocking the fridge with fruit and yogurt instead of chips and cookies, young athletes have no choice but to choose those foods.”
Wyatt Myers is a contributing writer for the UMiami Health News Blog.