Blazing running speed, powerful muscles and quick maneuvering are all signs of a strong athlete. But, behind all that speed, power and agility is more than just practice, exercise and strength training. Good nutrition is essential in order to enhance athletic performance both on and off the field.
For kids, it’s even more critical because they’re growing and developing. In fact, some active children have a hard time eating enough food to stay well-nourished. They just aren’t aware how much they are actually burning off in their sport.
“Kids who are physically active tend to have higher nutrient needs than non-athletes,” said Lindsay Bailey, Akron Children’s newest sports medicine nutritionist in our Sports Medicine Center. “Plus, children and teens require additional energy to meet growth and development needs on top of what is needed to fuel their sport. It’s almost like they need a double layer of nutrition.”
If you notice your child’s performance isn’t where it could be or where it used to be, it could be a sign of nutritional deficiency.
Poor nutrition can cause recurring infections and illnesses, an inability to gain or build muscle, fatigue, weight loss, and recurring or slow-to-heal bone injuries. All of these issues can lead to poor performance on the field or even being sidelined.
Nutritional deficiencies youth athletes typically suffer from include low levels of iron, vitamin D, calcium and protein, as well as dehydration.
Inadequate iron may lead to impaired muscle function and fatigue. Low iron can progress to iron deficiency anemia if left untreated. Females are at a higher risk of iron deficiency due to a menstrual cycle.
Good sources of iron include: lean beef, chicken and turkey, beans and lentils, dark leafy greens, fortified cereals and whole-grain breads.
Vitamin D and calcium
Calcium and vitamin D deficiencies are very common because of the combination of low sunlight in the fall and winter months in our climate and the fact that many kids don’t meet their daily requirement for dairy.
Young athletes may experience recurring or slow-to-heal stress fractures. Kids may have low bone density, and females could experience menstrual irregularities.
Good sources of calcium and vitamin D include low-fat milk that’s fortified with vitamin D, yogurt and cheese. Nuts, legumes and greens are also good sources of calcium, and fish and eggs are good sources of vitamin D.
Dehydration is more common than parents might think and can lead to fatigue, muscle cramps and dizziness. Severe dehydration can cause nausea and vomiting.
The goal for kids is to stay ahead of dehydration. Bailey recommends young athletes start off fully hydrated and maintain that hydration throughout practice or a game.
“Just the smallest amount of dehydration can affect performance,” said Bailey. “Performance declines with as little as 2% to 3% decrease in body weight from water (sweat) loss.”
For most kids, drinking plenty of water is the best way to stay hydrated. However, if your child is participating in a long, intense game and sweating profusely, he may need something more with carbohydrates and electrolytes, such as a sports drink.
“Let’s not forget about a child’s energy and protein needs,” added Bailey. “Kids may be eating and not skipping meals, but they don’t realize just how many calories they need to grow and fuel their sport. Most young athletes need to eat 3 meals and 3 snacks each day.”
If you think your child may be suffering from a nutritional deficiency, the best place to start is with her pediatrician. She knows your child’s medical history best and can get to the bottom of what’s affecting his performance. If necessary, she can refer your child to a sports nutritionist, like Bailey.
Bailey typically starts out with a customized meal plan for the child’s individual needs. For most athletes, eating a variety of food groups including proteins, grains and starches, fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, oils and dairy (or dairy alternatives) will provide young athletes with sufficient nutrients.
“Most kids are able to meet their daily calorie needs from food alone,” said Bailey. “If we need to add supplements, we’ll experiment with protein powders. Nutrients are better absorbed through food than supplements, however, so I always try adjusting a child’s diet first.”
If you have questions about your child’s health, make an appointment with a pediatrician.