Thursday, October 29, 2015

Feeding The Child Athlete

Now that it’s fall and there’s a few months of school under our belts, many children and their parents are back into the swing of school sports. My cousin, being one of these parents, recently texted me to ask about hydration for her 8 year old son who plays baseball in the Florida heat. She said that many of the other parents were sending sports drinks to practice with their kids, and she wasn’t sure that this was appropriate. Being the awesome cousin that she is, she reached out to a knowledgeable Registered Dietitian (that’s me!) for guidance. Not only did I help, but I decided to write a 101 on child sports nutrition:

·         Eating a healthful diet is the priority for your growing athlete. Although children are playing sports and burning a ton of calories, that doesn’t give them a license to eat whatever they want. Growing children need several key nutrients, like calcium for bone health, Vitamin C for immune system development, iron for growth, and protein for muscle growth and repair. These nutrients are only found in healthy foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and proteins. Child athletes put their bodies through more wear and tear than less active children, so they need to be even more diligent about eating healthy foods for growth and development.
·         Fluids should be the priority. Hydration is so incredibly important for child athletes. Children get hotter faster than adults because they have a greater body surface area for their body weight, so they gain heat faster from the environment than adults. They need to drink very frequently during exercise and cold water is the perfect refresher. A good rule of thumb is that children need about 4 ounces (or ½ cup) of water for every 20 minutes of play.  Make sure you teach your children about the importance of hydration, or they might just forget to drink all together! Fresh fruit is also high in water, and orange slice breaks during practice should be encouraged!
·         Sport drinks are not necessary. Let’s face it–kids love sport drinks because they are sweet.  If you provide them, they will drink them. I’ve read a lot about this and the verdict on whether or not they are needed is mixed. One thing I can tell you is that sport drinks are ONLY needed for intense activity lasting longer than an hour.  You can read all about sport drinks here, but my overall opinion is that kids don’t need them. For exercise lasting longer than an hour, you can replace salt losses with a salty snack like pretzels or saltines.
·         Carbohydrates are the best energy source.  Basically, carbs are what make athletes “go”. They are the fuel for the car. A child athlete’s diet should be balanced and consist of healthy carbs, like fruit and veggie sticks and whole grain crackers, breads, and cereals. Healthy carbs should be consumed 2-3 hours before practice to maintain energy.
·         Lean protein repairs muscles.  Because children are growing, their muscles are still developing. Sports cause muscle breakdown, and proteins aid in muscle repair. While it’s an emerging trend among kids to take protein supplements, this should definitely be discouraged. There are so many healthful protein food choices that kids can eat and enjoy, such as peanut butter, low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese sticks, chicken, turkey, and fish.  A turkey sandwich after practice is the perfect amount of protein to repair worn out muscles!

Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian in New York City.  Natalie believes that healthy food should be tasty food, and she is passionate about living an active lifestyle.  Natalie is a writer for many nutrition publications, and she enjoys sharing her favorite recipes and nutrition knowledge on her blog, Nutrition ála Natalie.  Follow Natalie on Twitter @nutritionalanat.