Young Athletes and Nutrition
All young people need to eat balanced meals and have a healthy diet. In general, those who eat healthy, well-balanced meals and snacks on a regular basis will get the nutrients needed to perform well in sports. However, depending on the sport, some young athletes may have higher energy and fluid requirements.
Getting Essential Nutrients
Besides getting the right amount of calories, it takes an assortment of nutrients to keep young athletes performing at their best:
- Young athletes need a variety of vitamins and minerals. Calcium and iron are two important minerals for athletes:
- Calcium helps build strong bones to resist breaking and stress fractures. Calcium-rich foods include low-fat dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese, as well as leafy green vegetables such as broccoli.
- Iron helps carry oxygen to all the different body parts that need it. Iron-rich foods include lean meat, chicken, tuna, salmon, eggs, dried fruits, leafy green vegetables, and fortified whole grains.
- Protein helps build and repair muscles, and most kids get plenty of it through a balanced diet. Protein-rich foods include fish, lean meat and poultry, dairy products, beans, nuts, and soy products. Too much protein can lead to dehydration and calcium loss.
- Carbohydrates provide energy for the body. For a young athlete they're an important source of fuel. There's no need for "carb loading" but without carbs in their diet, a young athlete will be running on empty. When choosing carbs, look for whole-grain foods like whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, whole-grain bread and cereal, and plenty of fruits and vegetables
Today, many young people think that taking supplements such as protein powders, creatine, amino acids, mega-dose vitamins/minerals, weight loss aids, energy boosters, and more will help improve their performance. For young people in particular, the risks of using supplements far outweigh the perceived benefits. Young athletes can get closer to their athletic and healthy living goals by properly fueling their bodies with a well-balanced diet. If you believe your young athlete would benefit from a multi-vitamin or a supplement, seek out the advice of a physician, registered dietician, or athletic trainer.
It's important for young athletes to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration, which can zap strength, energy, and coordination and lead to heat-related illness. Even mild dehydration can affect athletic performance. Thirst is not a reliable sign of hydration status, so experts recommend that active young people drink water or other fluids before and every 15 to 20 minutes during physical activity. It's important to drink afterward to restore fluid lost through sweat.
Although many sports drinks are available, plain water is usually enough to keep an athlete hydrated. Sports drinks are designed to provide energy and replace electrolytes—such as sodium and potassium—that athletes lose in sweat. They can be a good choice for those who participate in strenuous physical activity for more than one hour, because after exercising for 60 to 90 minutes, the body has used up its readily available sources of energy. Sports drinks are also a good alternative for those who participate in sports but won't drink enough water.
The bottom line is that for most young athletes, water is the best choice for hydration. After the activity, carbohydrates and electrolytes can be replenished. If you are concerned about any of your young athlete’s dietary needs, consult with a healthcare professional.
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