Let’s be honest. Getting kids to eat a well-balanced meal three times a day sometimes take nothing less than a miracle, especially if your child is a picky eater or you’re constantly running from activity to activity and don’t have time for a sit-down meal. But youth athletes need a healthy diet in order to perform at the top of their game. And that means finding the right balance between carbohydrates AND protein.
Protein is how young athletes build muscle.
Protein is critical in building and maintaining muscle; strengthens the immune system, maintains energy levels, and is useful only when we eat enough carbohydrates. If young athletes are wanting to gain muscle, they need to make sure to meet their daily protein needs by eating protein at each meal and snack and obtaining the majority of their extra calories from carbohydrates while making sure to follow an appropriate and individualized resistance training program.
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. Save those bigger proteins for after the game.
Carbohydrates give athletes energy to perform.
A lot of marketing messages for diet products have made carbs out to be the enemy and we are bombarded with messages highlighting the benefits of low-carb or no-carb diets. But in actuality, “Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for the body and brain. We need carbohydrates daily.” Marathon runners know the importance of a good store of carbs for energy, which is why they often “carbo-load” the night before a big race. Without enough carbs to draw energy from, the body starts burning fat (that’s why diets are so anit-carb!). But for athletes with minimal fat stores (especially endurance athletes), the body can breaking down muscles in order to keep everything functioning properly.
Whole-grain snacks like crackers and bagels are made of complex carbohydrates, which take a longer time to break down and provide lasting energy. Simple carbohydrates like those in white breads and cookies are more quickly converted to sugar for fuel (which means faster energy) but can cause a sugar crash later. 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.
And of course any healthy diet needs to include lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. There is a big difference between “fruit” snacks and an actual apple or orange. Fresh blueberries, for instance, are full of good carbohydrates, fiber, and Vitamin C. Some blueberry flavored fruit snacks, on the other hand, actually have very few blueberries in them and use blueberry juice concentrate to get the flavor and color. Fresh fruits and veggies are full of natural antioxidants and natural anti-inflammatories such as vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene. These foods can help lessen and prevent inflammation, optimize the immune system, increase energy, help speed recovery time, and decrease the risk of disease.