“They absolutely need to eat more,” says Dr. Jacqueline Winkelmann, a CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital pediatrician who works to provide nutrition tips and guidance in youth sports.
“Young athletes are still growing, and their metabolic demands are so high,” she says. “They need to take in the necessary amount of calories for growth and whatever the sport demands.”
How much, when to eat
Parents can estimate the amount of calories a child’s activity burns by using this tool. That number can help guide the week’s menu and ensure a consistent healthy diet – a key factor for top athletic performance, Dr. Winkelmann says.
“It isn’t true that if you eat badly all week and have one good meal before you play, you’ll be fine,” she said.
Here’s why: Glycogen is an energy source that fuels exercise in humans, but it’s built days before use, Dr. Winkelmann explains. That’s why eating well in the days preceding a game is crucial to optimal performance.
Pre-game eating particulars
Nonetheless, both the timing and type of food an athlete eats right before a game is also important. Whether a snack or a meal, she advises that pre-game fuel should be about 70 percent carbohydrates, 25 percent protein and 5 percent healthy fats. Carbohydrates are a key source of energy for children, adolescents and teens, Dr. Winkelmann advises.
“A meal can be anything from a whole wheat sandwich, a wrap, or chicken noodle soup with bread,” she says. “But if you have less than two hours before competition, focus on a snack that will fill up your tank, and then wait until after the game to eat a full meal.”
Post-game eats matter too
Indeed, what’s eaten after the game is also important. After vigorous activity, the body’s muscles can absorb more nutrients and can produce glycogen two times faster than normal. Dr. Winkelmann calls this time the “golden window.”
“We want to take advantage of it,” she explains. “That’s what your body will soak up. It’s important to have the right kind of fuel at that time.”
To that end, Dr. Winkelmann recommends food with a carbohydrate-to-protein ratio of three-to-one:
- Chocolate milk
- Fruit with cheese cubes
- Yogurt and granola
- Pretzels and nut butter
Tips for tournament eating
An athlete’s road tournaments also present new challenges for healthy eating, but a little preparation can go a long way, Dr. Winkelmann says.
Try traveling with a cooler so that healthy foods like yogurt, cheese, fruit and nut butters are always nearby. Technology can also help track down healthy fast food and restaurant options. For example, www.healthydiningfinder.com finds eateries nearby that offer healthy choices, Dr. Winkelmann says.