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The advice and products available to help fuel young athletes for sport are more abundant than ever before, and it’s getting harder to know what actually works. Here, pediatric sports dietitians Lauren Furuta, MOE, RD, and Laura Watne, MS, RD, provide five tips that outline the best ways to feed active children, while helping them build lifelong healthy eating habits.
Young athletes benefit most from simple, healthy eating that provides the right balance of calories, protein, carbohydrates and fat to support normal growth and maximum energy for their sport. Most young athletes need three well-balanced meals with snacks in-between that emphasize a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. It’s also important to stay hydrated throughout the day by drinking mostly water at mealtimes (or milk, or a milk alternative).
Because of their portability, packaged bars and drinks can be a convenient — and sometimes necessary — way to fill long gaps between meals. They can be especially useful for teenage athletes who burn many calories at long practices and sweat a lot on the field. But while that may be true for a teenager, Watne and Furuta say it’s unlikely that a young child who practices or competes for an hour or less at a time would need an energy bar or sports drink. No matter the age of the child, parents should be mindful not to make a daily habit out of replacing whole food with packaged food.
It’s not uncommon for a parent who is trying to eat healthy and/or lose weight to cook low-fat, low-carbohydrate and/ or low-calorie food for the whole family. That might include using light or diet products and sugar-free or carb-free foods. While those products might be appropriate for some adults, young athletes need carbohydrates, fats and proteins in amounts that will fuel their sport, their brains and their growing bodies throughout the day. Unless your child needs to avoid certain foods for a medical condition, eliminating food from their diet just because you’ve eliminated it from your diet could lead to poor athletic performance or growth challenges.
Because low-carb diets are more popular, “there’s this big misconception that eating carbs causes unwanted weight gain and that they are bad foods,” Furuta says. “Consuming excess calories without enough output from exercise will make you gain weight — not carbs alone.” She explains that kids need carbohydrates to fuel their activities and their growing bodies, but they might not be getting enough for fear of gaining weight. Parents can instill lifelong healthy eating habits by teaching kids how to favor nutrient-rich carbs like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy products over carbs that are high in fat and calories such as cookies, cakes, candies and soda.
Watne and Furuta often hear from parents who worry their young athlete isn’t eating enough protein. “Unless your child avoids protein-rich foods — for example, if your child is a vegan — it’s pretty easy for most kids to get enough protein from regular food.” Watne says. “Kids usually don’t need protein powders or protein bars.” If parents are worried about their child’s muscle mass or low weight, their child probably needs more total calories from carbohydrates and fats, as well as from protein. If kids don’t consume enough calories, the protein they do eat will fuel their activities, not muscle growth and repair. Furuta and Watne recommend providing good sources of protein at every meal such as peanut butter, eggs, yogurt, lean meat, poultry, beans, fish and whole grains.
*Elite, collegiate or young athletes with intense workout schedules may require more fine-tuned diets.
Store-bought, packaged protein and energy bars are often full of sugar, preservatives, and loaded with chocolate – all things that can affect your child’s energy levels and upset their stomach during activities or exercise. Here are some suggestions for whole foods you can feed your young athlete:
Plan ahead. Portion out your hummus, trail mix and other items in portable containers or baggies and store them in the fridge or pantry for the week, so your athlete can grab and go.
Eating healthy snacks between meals is important for active, growing kids. To help your child stay energized throughout the day, try this easy recipe for portable, nutrient-rich energy bars from Kyle Noble, former professional chef and current marketing coordinator at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
Serving size 1 bar; makes 10 bars
1. Process the dried fruit in a food processor until it becomes almost a smooth puree (about 1 minute). The mixture will look like dough.
2. Place fruit puree in a large mixing bowl; add oats and set aside.
3. Warm the honey in a small saucepan over low heat and stir in the sunflower seed butter. Heat gently, being careful not to burn the mixture.
4. When completely combined, pour over the oat and fruit mixture. Stir well.
5. Once thoroughly mixed, transfer to a flat baking dish or cookie sheet lined with plastic wrap or parchment paper.
6. Using a rolling pin (or a spatula, drinking glass, bottom of a bowl) press down firmly on the mixture until flattened and packed tightly.
7. Cover with parchment paper or plastic wrap and let it rest in the refrigerator until set — about 20 minutes.
8. Remove the mixture from the pan and cut into evenly portioned bars.
9. Store bars in an airtight container for up to five days, or in the freezer for one month (thaw before eating). You can also package them individually by wrapping them in parchment paper, plastic wrap or sandwich bags for eating on the go.