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Sports Nutrition Basics: Children Have Special Nutritional Needs

Colorful vegetablesWhether it's training for a soccer game or playing a backyard game of catch, children's athletic performance, development, and growth depend largely on eating the right foods.

Unfortunately, most children (and adults) forget just how important nutrition is to good health and athletic performance. Many children, especially in the years before puberty, have poor eating habits (skipping breakfast, eating the same foods day after day, consuming too many energy drinks). As a result, their diets are missing nutrients and their growth and athletic performance may be impaired.

It is important to recognize that children are not miniature adults; they have special nutritional needs. It is especially important to meet their nutritional needs as they enter puberty, when they experience rapid growth as they undergo hormonal changes marking the beginning of adolescence.

Nutrition Guidelines

The most appropriate diet for the youth athlete is one that:

Such a diet can be achieved by planning intake to include a variety of foods from each of the five major food groups in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) My Plate.  Especially for children, My Plate serves as a visual guide for choosing foods and planning healthful meals.

There are three key principles for a high-performance diet: 

  1. Variety. Because no single food or supplement contains all the nutrients your child needs for optimum health, growth and performance, eating foods from each of the five food groups daily, as well as different foods from within each group, is essential.

  2. Moderation. Your child should not eat too little or too much of any one food or nutrient.

  3. Balance. Calorie intake and energy expenditure should be balanced to maintain a healthy weight and body composition. Balance ordinarily results from practicing moderation and variety, and requires that your child consume appropriate amounts of essential nutrients.

More Nutritional Tips

  • Occasional sweets okay. You don't have to eliminate foods that get most of their calories from fat or sugars, but your child should only consume such foods occasionally, in addition to, not in place, of other nutrient-dense foods from the food groups lower down on the pyramid.
  • Nutritional supplements a bad idea.  In general, if your child eats food in the proportions recommended on My Plate, she will get the vitamins and minerals, and the calories she requires.No skipping meals. Find out about your child's eating habits. Encourage your child to distribute calories throughout the day at regular mealtimes and snacks. This will ensure you're your child has readily available sources of energy to support growth and training activity. Energy drinks should not be seen as a meal substitute.
  • Get expert help if needed. If you ever become concerned about whether your child's diet is adequate, seek nutritional counseling. A registered dietician can help identify any nutritional problems that may be hindering your child's performance.

Improving your child's diet

To improve your child's diet:

  • Buy more healthy foods

  • Make your child's favorite foods more nutritionally dense or substitute similar foods that are, such as by:

    • Serving fortified cereals instead of sugary ones

    • Offering peanut butter cookies instead of chocolate cream cookies

    • Substituting fruit-flavored frozen yogurt for dessert instead of ice cream
  • Make gradual changes in diet while encouraging your child to eat  more nutrient dense food.

  • Provide nutritious snacks and fluids for before and after practice and competitions, so your child does not have to rely on vending machines filled with sugary or high-fat snacks, energy drinks, and soft drinks.

  • Model healthy eating. If you set a good example for your child by exercising and eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, your child is more likely to "eat to compete" and grow into a healthy adult. 

Variety and balance in the family menu will underscore the importance of eating different foods to provide the range of nutrients needed for growth and development. Ideally, this is achieved by regularly scheduled meals at home plus nutritious snacks.

Providing nutritious meals around hectic practice schedules and away from home is a particular challenge. Workouts may disrupt your child's meal schedule, resulting in a greater reliance on convenient fast food or the child eating alone at home before or after the family eats. As a result, it is very important to help your child make nutritious choices wherever he eats, whether it is at a fast food, family-style or ethnic restaurant, a grocery or convenience store, or on an airplane, or while competing in a foreign country.

Parents should educate children about basic facts about the different food groups and how different foods help or hurt athletic performance. Attempts to teach children nutritional concepts and information should take into account their age and developmental level (for example, by explaining to a 7 year old that foods containing carbohydrates, like bread and pasta, provide energy for their muscles, and that dairy foods like milk help build strong bones).

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