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 activity level. 

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 children.
  • 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. 
  • Avoid giving 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 level. Visithttp://www.usda.gov/cnpp/pyramid-update/index.html  for 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.

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