In order to perform at their best, youth athletes need to have the right food fueling their bodies. You are what you eat and what your child eats before they go to practice or a game has a dramatic impact on how much energy they will have on the field. We know that plenty of sports parents are rushing from one activity to the next, and you may not always be able to have a proper sit down dinner, but eating the right things at the right time is so important for youth athletes!
Athletes need protein to build muscle.
Protein is what helps repair and strengthen muscle tissue. Protein contributes about 10% of the total fuel an athlete’s body uses, while the remaining fuel is made up of carbohydrates and fat. Eating high-quality protein (such as eggs, dairy, or soy) immediately after exercising helps encourage muscle repair and creation but endurance athletes (like cross country runners) and strength athletes (such as sprinters or weight lifters) use protein differently. Endurance athletes tend to synthesize more protein for fuel while strength athletes tend use protein more for muscle development
Fatty food and proteins (like fast food burgers) can take a long time to digest so athletes can get that heavy feeling in their stomachs, which is definitely not fun on a hot day! Low-fat protein options like plain Greek yogurt, turkey, and eggs are a better source of good fats, vitamins and protein.
Good carbohydrates provide energy.
In order to retain their muscle, athletes need to ensure they are also meeting their body’s needs for carbohydrates and fat, and not just protein. Carbohydrates are the main immediate fuel source for young athletes and without enough carbs to fuel them our bodies turn to protein for energy. Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in the body, which is readily metabolized to glucose for energy. Young athletes do not have the same capacity to store glycogen as we adults do so they need to eat more complex carbohydrates during the day in order to have enough energy stored up. The American Dietetic Association (ADA) has set the following recommendations for the young athlete:
- 3 to 5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram for very light intensity training;
- 5 to 8 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram for moderate or heavy training;
- 8 to 9 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram for pre-event loading aka carbo-loading (24 to 48 hours prior)
- 1.7 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram for post-event refueling (within two to three hours).
Whole-grains foods contain all three parts of the grain (bran, the germ and endosperm). Whole-grain snacks like crackers and bagels are better usually athletes because they break down more slowly and provide lasting energy. Simple carbohydrates like those in white breads and cookies are more quickly converted to sugar (which means faster energy) but cause a sugar crash later. Many sports parents turn to granola bars as the go-to half-time snack, but most of the cereal and granola bars that your youth athletes are going to like have very little fiber or protein.
Athletes can never have too much water.
Compared with adults, young athletes may actually be at a higher risk for dehydration. Children “experience greater heat stress and heat accumulation, and they have a greater ratio of surface area to body mass and absorb heat more readily.” Water is almost always the best choice for hydration. Sports drinks, like Gatorade, are really only necessary when young athletes also need to replace electrolytes (usually after exercising for an hour). Most outfielders in a Little League game aren’t pushing themselves hard enough to really need a Gatorade, but a cross-country runner or lacrosse player probably needs to replace those electrolytes and carbs fast.