A Healthy Diet for Your Little Athlete
By Beth Cline
An internet search of the
phrase ‘child obesity’ returns more than 3.3 million weblinks. The
phrase ‘child athlete’ returns less than half that amount. As the
United States focuses on its war against childhood obesity, it is
vital to remember the end to this spectrum, the child athlete.
Whether it’s the next Olympic swimmer, a future pro athlete or
someday winner of the Marine Corps Marathon, these highly active
children have very specific food requirements necessary to meet the
demands of sports.
Most child athletes practice and compete six to
seven days a week, sometimes twice a day. Their growing bodies are
screaming for fuel. Healthy, growing children require between 1,600
and 2,000 calories per day. However, child athletes burn an average
of 200 more calories each day and need to make up the deficiency
with extra nutrients. They may also be legitimately hungrier than
the less active child. Many websites can help parents determine the
exact caloric needs of their child based on age, weight, height and
In addition to three balanced meals a day, a
healthy diet should also include one to two ‘good-for-you’ snacks.
Game days or days of heavy activity may require children to adjust
their eating schedule. Parents should strive to ensure children eat
a meal 2-3 hours before any activity avoiding high fat-foods, which
take longer to digest. Parent can also give children fruit or
vegetables 1-2 hours prior to practice if a full meal is not an
option. A child with a full stomach will spend energy processing
food and not have enough extra energy to play their best.
As important as it is to know when a child
should eat, it is as vital to know what they should eat.
According to www.KidsHealth.com
, “There are 40 different nutrients that a child needs. They’re not
going to get them all from just a few kinds of food.” Children
should have a variety of foods based on the four food groups: dairy,
carbohydrates, protein and fruit/vegetables, with minimal sugars and
fats. The USDA’s food pyramid gives parents more specific ideas on
how to integrate the right foods into a child’s diet.
Here are some helpful hints:
Keep kid’s diets colorful. Variety in
colors of food usually equals a variety in nutrients.
Child athletes thrive on carbohydrates to
give them energy as they workout and as they continue to grow.
Many adults see carbohydrates as a negative or unhealthy food
based on popular diet fads, but this is not the case for active
Focus on whole grains such as wheat bread,
instead of heavily processed grains such as white breads.
Heavier processing means less nutritional value.
Avoid sugar and fat filled snacks like
cookies and candy. If kids want something sweet, try a granola
bar, yogurt or a piece of fruit.
Never let children skip breakfast. They
will miss necessary vitamins and minerals as well as lack the
energy to get through the school day and to practice.
As for drinks, parents should promote
water and milk as the best drinks for active and growing
children. Avoid sugary and caffeine filled sodas. Monitor fruit
juice consumption as many contain added sugar. Try for fresh
squeezed or low sugar juices.
Remind athletes that hydration is
important before, after and during all exercise.
Many products on the market seek to provide
kids with a more energy dense snack, including supplements, sports
drinks and energy bars. For parents, it can be a challenge to wade
through all these “for athletes” edibles. A few things to remember:
Healthy, active children should never use
supplements unless specifically directed by a doctor. Most
supplements give children too many extra vitamins and proteins
that a child’s body can’t break down.
Sports drinks contain
electrolytes (sodium and potassium), which help kids stay
hydrated. However, they also contain extra sugar and calories
and should be used in moderation and in addition to water.
Energy bars should
never replace meals. They can, however, be a good addition to a
child’s diet as a snack before heavy activity.
adult energy bars to children. Kid-friendly bars like Z-bar
made by Clif Bar are new additions to the market and are a much
more suitable choice. “Parents can finally choose a healthy AND
fun snack that helps kids be kids. It's a kids' CLIF Bar that
we designed to fuel their growing, active bodies,” Betty
Bredemann, product manager at Clif Bar explains, “It
has the right combination of protein, carbohydrates, fiber
and 12 vitamins and minerals in a serving size that's
appropriate for kids.”
Keep informed of changes to the recommended
diet for children, especially athletes. As of 2005, the USDA’s
Center for Nutrition promotion and policy was in the process of
redesigning the food pyramid (referred to as the Food Guidance
System) in order to combat obesity. The new design will take into
account a child’s age, weight, height, sex and physical activity
additional information and upcoming changes.
By assuring child athletes receive the proper
nutrition for their demanding lifestyle, parents are teaching their
healthy kids eating habits that can keep them active for a lifetime.
Articles in the Healthy Kids Series are
presented by Healthy Kids Fun Run to be held on Sunday, October 30,
2005 in conjunction with the Marine Corps Marathon. Online
registration opens May 1, 2005. The one-mile run is open to children
ages 6-12. Visit
www.marinemarathon.com . Beth Cline is the Public
Relations Coordinator for the Marine Corps Marathon. No federal or
Marine Corps endorsement implied.