All kids need to eat balanced meals and have a healthy diet. But should that balance change for kids who play on a sports team or work out?
Kids need to eat the right amount and mix of foods to support that higher level of activity, but that mix might not be too different from a normal healthy diet. Eating for sports should be an extension of healthy eating for life.
Kids who eat healthy, well-balanced meals and snacks will get the nutrients needed to perform well in sports. The MyPlate food guide can provide guidance on what kinds of foods and drinks to include in your child's meals and snacks. 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. But if you're concerned that your child is getting too much or too little food, check in with your doctor.
Besides getting the right amount of calories, it takes a variety of nutrients to keep young athletes performing at their best:
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.
Diluted juice is 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.
Some school-age athletes face unique pressures involving nutrition and body weight. In some sports, it's common for kids to feel they need to radically increase or reduce their weight to reach peak performance.
In sports that emphasize weight or appearance, such as wrestling, swimming, dance, or gymnastics, kids may feel pressure to lose weight. Because athletic kids need extra fuel, it's usually not a good idea for them to diet. Unhealthy eating habits, like crash dieting, can leave kids with less strength and endurance and poor mental concentration.
Similar performance issues can come up when kids try to increase their weight too fast for sports where size matters, such as football or hockey. When a person overeats, the food the body can't immediately use gets stored as fat. As a result, kids who overeat may gain weight, not muscle, and their physical fitness will be harmed.
If a coach, gym teacher, or teammate says that your child needs to lose or gain weight, or if you're concerned about your child's eating habits, talk to your doctor. The doctor can work with you and your child or refer you to a dietician to develop a plan that allows your child to work on the weight in a safe and healthy way.
It's important for kids to eat well on game days. The meal itself should not be very different from what they've eaten throughout training. Athletes can choose healthy foods they believe enhance their performance and don't cause any problems like stomach upset.
Here are some general guidelines:
And remember, when packing your child's bag for the big day, add a water bottle or sports drink.
A good breakfast for young athletes might include low-fat yogurt with some granola and a banana, or whole-grain cereal and low-fat milk with sliced strawberries. Try bean burritos with low-fat cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes or a turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread and fruit for lunch. For dinner, serve grilled chicken breasts with steamed rice and vegetables, or pasta with red sauce and lean ground beef, along with a salad. Good snacks include pretzels, raisins, crackers, string cheese, vegetables, or fruit.
It's important to feed your child healthy meals and snacks consistently, even during the off-season. This will provide a solid foundation during times of competition.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: January 2015
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