Tips for Great Nutrition for Young Athletes

Kids who love to run, jump, swim and play deserve the best nutrition for young athletes. Help your budding sports star perform their best with these expert tips.

Your growing child is finishing up summer sports camps and getting ready to jump, dive, swim, run or otherwise kick off a full year of school sports. As a parent, you want to make sure your child has everything they need to succeed on the playing field — and that includes a high level of energy. What’s the best nutrition for young athletes and what will give them the energy they need?

We caught up with Sandra Sellers, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and Youth Wellness and Sports Nutrition Manager with Milk Means More to learn more about the best nutrition for young athletes. She should know! In addition to her professional expertise, Sellers is also a former marathoner and says running is the reason she became an RDN. Since becoming a mom herself, Sellers sticks to shorter distances and this summer finished her first triathlon.

With Sellers’ help, we offer plenty of wisdom — and debunk a myth or two — about nutrition for young athletes.

The basics: carbs, protein, fat

If you’re thinking that an energy drink is all your child needs, think twice. “Energy comes from food, not from caffeine,” says Sellers. “Your child needs carbohydrates, protein and fat — some people call these macros — and they’re all really important to athletic performance.”

Like gas in a car, carbs provide your child’s body with energy, and should be the primary energy source for your young athlete, Sellers says. “Carbs come from grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy,” she says, and suggests that families check out myplate.gov for a good visual on just how much of your child’s typical meal should contain these energy-essential nutrients.

“Protein is important because it helps build and repair muscle tissue, which is broken down during exercise,” Sellers says. “And fat is a condensed source of energy and helps the body absorb the vitamins and minerals in our diet, so it’s also essential.”

Best sources of these nutrients

So, what are some great sources of these important nutrients? Sellers offers these suggestions for young athletes:

  • For carbs before a workout, try fruit, yogurt or crackers. “I love applesauce pouches and have one every time before I run or ride my bike,” Sellers says. Simple carbohydrates are absorbed more quickly and can be very effective in providing energy — but go slow! “Don’t eat a bunch and then exercise, particularly on game day,” she says. “Start with a small amount because too much might, at the very least, give you an upset stomach.” Over time, you will learn what your body can tolerate before exercise.
  • Two hours or more before exercise, try a more robust snack that includes protein. “This might be a fruit and yogurt parfait, some cheese and crackers or a smoothie,” she suggests. “Parents are busy and kids are busy, so if you need to throw some things in a gym bag and not worry about refrigeration, beef jerky and crackers or fruit are good options.”
  • Sellers suggest keeping fat intake in proportion with carbs and proteins, so if your child is consuming a balanced diet, they’re likely to get the appropriate amount of fat to help them absorb the other nutrients.

Time for recovery

“Right after exercise, your muscles are like sponges, ready to take back in all the energy they just used,” Sellers says. “Chocolate milk has just the right ratio of proteins and carbs to refuel and is great for that 30- to 45-minute window of opportunity post-workout.” The longer you get from that window, the less efficient the refuel, so think ahead and pack some chocolate milk!

Other options for post-exercise recovery include foods that balance carbohydrates and protein, like a smoothie or a protein shake plus fruit. “Make sure it’s not just a sports drink only because you’re missing the protein component,” she says.

More tips: nutrition for young athletes

Sellers offers these additional nutrition tips to help keep your young athlete performing their best:

  • Pay attention to hydration. “I’d say hydration is something to pay attention to all day long,” she says. “I recommend young people drink milk with meals and water in between. They’ll benefit from the three servings of dairy each day, but generally will stay hydrated, too.”
  • It’s OK to drink 100% fruit juice, Sellers says, but because it can provide lots of extra calories, it’s best to enjoy juice only in small amounts. “Eat an apple instead, so you get the benefits of fiber and nutrients in the apple,” she says.
  • Sellers suggests checking out eatright.org for more nutrition tips for athletic performance.
  • Focus on nutritious foods first, and watch caffeine intake. “Energy drinks can have huge amounts of caffeine, which will give you a burst of energy followed by a crash,” Sellers warns. “It won’t give you the long-term benefit you hope. Additionally, at college and professional levels, caffeine is monitored through drug testing. Energy drinks have caffeine and substances that are banned by the NCAA and others.”
  • Believe it or not, “sleep is a huge piece of sports nutrition and being an athlete,” Sellers says. “Sleep is when your brain commits to memory and cements the concepts you learned in math class, but it’s also when your body is building and repairing muscles.”
  • “Learn to give yourself grace,” she adds. “Not every day will be a perfect day nutritionally or athletically. Tomorrow is another day and you can try again.”

Content sponsored by Milk Means More. Visit milkmeansmore.org.

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