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Fuel Like a Champion: Nutrition for Young Athletes
In this article for parents, youth nutrition expert Mitzi Dulan discusses sports nutrition for young athletes and how parents can help their child fuel like a champion.
More prevalent than ever, over 35 million youth are participating in organized sports today. According to The Wall Street Journal, more than $4 billion dollars are spent each year on personalized training and coaching for young athletes in the United States. One component of training which is often overlooked by parents, coaches and athletes is nutrition. Given the increasing rates of pediatric obesity it is a perfect opportunity to teach your child how to maximize performance and build better eating habits to last a lifetime.
Over half of all NFL teams and many collegiate athletic programs now use the services of sports nutritionists. The good news is more and more young athletes are starting to make the connection between what they eat and how they play. “Staying well fueled is just as important for young athletes as it is for professional athletes”, says Heidi Skolnik, Sports Nutritionist for the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants.
I like to use the analogy of thinking of your body as a high performance sports car, let’s say a shiny, new, red Porsche. The fuel you put in your gas tank is food. Would you put the lowest grade of fuel in your Porsche? Of course not- but if your kids are enjoying McDonald’s on a regular basis you are putting gunk in their gas tank. Would you let your Porsche run out of gas? No, you would always make sure it had fuel. Peak athletic performance requires plenty of high quality fuel-not gunk.
Below are some of the most common topics that come up with parents, coaches and athletes.
The Truth about Sports Drinks
Forbidding young athletes to consume sports drinks during games or practices is still enforced by some misinformed coaches across the country. This is not only bad information but it can also be dangerous and ridiculous. In the past, recommendations have suggested that sports drinks really aren’t necessary for events lasting less than 60 minutes. However, we know that it is important for all athletes to be adequately hydrated at the beginning of a practice or game. Sports drinks do offer several advantages over water. Research has shown that kids drink more sports drinks than water during physical activity because it tastes better. In fact, a study of preadolescent boys showed that they consumed almost twice as much sport drink as they did water during 3 hours of intermittent exercise in the heat when allowed to drink as much as they wanted. Sports drinks help to replace fluids lost during exercise and provide energy by maintaining better blood sugar levels during exercise. Additionally, they contain electrolytes like sodium and potassium which are lost in sweat. When large amounts of sodium are lost an athlete may develop muscle cramping.
Hydration Tips:
-Encourage your child to drink by a schedule-not by thirst.
-Have your child monitor their urine color. If their urine is pale like lemonade that’s a sign of good hydration. If it is dark like apple juice, they need to drink more fluids.
-Have your child weigh herself/himself before and after physical activity to gauge how much weight is typically lost.
-A few hours before exercise consume about 16 oz of fluids
-During exercise consume about 4-12 oz every 15-20 minutes
-After exercise, have your child replace every pound lost with 24 oz of fluid.
Eating for Recovery
Immediately following exercise your muscles act like a sponge for refueling and optimal recovery. The critical time for replacing these energy stores called glycogen is within the first 15-30 minutes after exercise. Simply waiting two hours can impair recovery and performance. The best option for quick recovery is typically a fluid as athletes are often not hungry right after exercising and it is usually more practical than eating a meal. Surprisingly, one of the very best options for quick recovery is chocolate milk. Yes, you read that right. The additional carbohydrates in chocolate milk give it the perfect ratio of carbohydrates and protein for refueling. Then you want to follow it up with a good recovery meal. The best foods for refueling are primarily carbohydrates with some protein like eating a skinless chicken breast with some whole wheat pasta and red sauce and vegetables.
Recovery Tip: Try low-fat organic chocolate milk for recovery.
How to Help Your Child to Gain Weight Safely and Legally
“How can I help my son gain weight?” is the most common question I am asked by parents. Did you know that it takes approximately 2500 extra calories to build one pound of muscle? Adding lean muscle is accomplished by combining a good resistance training program along with taking in additional calories. This often requires eating even when your athlete is not hungry. Skipping meals is a definite no-no for gaining weight. With limited time to eat at school along with practice and games a planned meal/snack schedule can help add good calories to accomplish a gradual and healthy weight gain.
Weight Gain Tip: Add a peanut butter and jelly sandwich after school/before practice and/or before bed. Snacking on trail mix is another easy way to add extra calories. Aim to add about 400-500 calories per day.
What to Eat
Fueling muscles with high performance fuels will improve performance by optimizing energy levels. Eating well gives you energy to practice better which will ultimately help you to play better when it really counts. An easy way to think of eating right for mealtime is 1-2-3.
  1. Always have a source of protein such as skinless chicken breast, fish, pork tenderloin, or extra lean ground beef. If you are a vegetarian athlete beans, lentils and tempeh can provide your protein. This should be about 25% of the plate.
  2. Choose whole grains such as whole wheat bread, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, quninoa, whole wheat pancakes, whole wheat pita, whole wheat English muffins, etc. This should be about 25% of the plate.
  3. Finish off the plate with vegetables. Spinach, broccoli, carrots, bell peppers- the more color the better. Take your kid grocery shopping with you and let them help pick out some new vegetables to try. Let them know vegetables provide powerful antioxidants that are great for athletes. Talk performance. Adding fresh spinach to a smoothie of frozen berries and organic milk is a great way to get some veggies in and you can’t even taste the spinach. However, I am not a fan of trying to “sneak” healthy foods into their diets without them knowing. I think you can lose a level of trust with your child with this approach. Vegetables should cover about 50% of the plate.
Sample Meal Plan for a Young Athlete
(Varies greatly based on individual goals, activity, intensity, current weight and gender)
7:45 am Breakfast
Bowl of Kashi Heart to Heart Cereal with fresh berries
1 cup organic 1% milk
10:00 am Morning Snack
½  cup trail mix with dried fruit and nuts (dried cranberries/cherries with raw walnuts/almonds) you can make your own
11:30 pm Lunch
Minimally processed turkey meat on whole wheat bread with light mayo
1% organic milk
Bag of Sun Chips
Small bag of baby carrots
3:30 pm Snack
2 slices whole wheat bread with organic nut butter (cashew, almond, peanut) and agave nectar
10 oz Gatorade
5:30 pm Recovery
20 oz Gatorade
6:30 pm Dinner
5 oz grilled chicken
1 cup broccoli and carrots
1 cup whole wheat pasta with red sauce
8-9 pm Snack
Raw Revolution Organic Bar or Lara Bar or Peanut Butter* and Banana Sandwich on Whole Grain Bread or trail mix
*Note: buy organic, natural peanut butter. The only ingredients should be nuts and salt to avoid the partially hydrogenated fats