Frequently Asked Questions About Sports Nutrition For Kids

Sports and physical activities are an important part of a healthy childhood. But families today are busier than ever with packed practice and game schedules. How can you make sure your athlete is getting the nutrition they need? 

Healthy eating gives energy to young athletes, keeping them at their best. “Calories are energy, and calories give kids the energy they need to perform,” says Alec Bognar, MS, RD, LDN, a metabolic dietitian at Lurie Children’s. But every young athlete’s calorie and nutritional needs are different.

Good nutrition supports a child’s health, growth and performance in sports. Here, Bognar offers answers to FAQs about feeding your young athlete.

What should I consider when planning meals and snacks for my young athlete? 

Nutritional requirements for athletes aren’t one size fits all. Your child’s energy needs depend on the type of activities they perform and how often they perform them. 

Young kids who play sports one hour or less each week likely won’t need a specialized diet. But older kids, teenagers and kids who play many games each week may have different needs depending on their activity level, age and weight. It can be challenging to know exactly what guidance to follow.

Your pediatrician or a dietitian can help you figure out the best balance for your child if you’re unsure. When you talk with your child’s provider, it’s important to consider your child’s: 

  • Activity level: Do they play more than one sport? 
  • Age: Are they still developing mentally and physically? 
  • Developmental stage: Are they going through puberty? Are they managing many academic or social expectations?
  • Frequency of workouts and sports activities: How many games and practices do they have each week? 
  • Type of sport they play: Are they a long-distance runner who needs to keep their energy up for a long time? Or are they a competitive weightlifter who needs to build muscle strength?

Here are some nutritional terms you’ll need to know to get the most out of your conversation with your child’s provider:

Carbohydrates  

Carbohydrates are your child’s main source of energy. Complex carbohydrates take longer for the body to break down and are a steady energy source. Your child can get complex carbohydrates from:

  • Brown rice
  • Oatmeal
  • Vegetables like sweet potatoes and squash
  • Whole-grain breads, cereals and pastas

Simple carbohydrates are sugars (glucose) that the body absorbs quickly. They provide quick energy. Foods that contain simple carbohydrates include: 

  • Candy
  • Fruits like bananas and oranges
  • Milk and dairy products
  • Processed baked goods and cereals
  • Soda

Fats

Fats are another important source of energy. Your child can get healthy fats from:

  • Eggs
  • Fatty fish such as tuna and salmon
  • Nuts and seeds

Proteins

Proteins help keep your child’s muscles healthy and growing. During physical activity, stress breaks down fibers in the muscles. Protein helps repair muscle fibers and makes muscles stronger. Your child can get protein from:

  • Beans and lentils
  • Dairy products, such as cheese and milk
  • Eggs
  • Lean meats, chicken and seafood

“The amount of protein a child needs each day depends on their age, body weight and activity level,” Bognar says. “Protein is important because it helps replenish muscles that work hard when kids are participating in activities.” 

Vitamins and minerals

All kids need vitamins and minerals to support growth and health. Two important minerals for athletes include:

  • Calcium: Calcium is a mineral that supports bone growth and strength. Kids can get calcium from dairy products and leafy green vegetables.
  • Iron: Iron is a mineral that supports healthy oxygen levels in the blood. Iron-rich foods include eggs, lean meat, chicken and fortified whole grains.

A daily multivitamin supplement can also help young athletes get the vitamins and minerals they need to support their bodies, Bognar says. Talk to your child’s pediatrician about whether a daily multivitamin is right for them. 

What should my child eat before an athletic event?

Proper timing of meals and snacks helps young athletes perform at their best. Bognar encourages kids to eat about two hours before an activity. “This gives the body some time to digest the food and break it down so kids won’t go into the activity too full,” he says. 

Choose foods that are higher in carbohydrates to provide sustainable energy. A moderate amount of protein and fats are best before games.

It’s important to adjust meal timing to your child’s specific preferences, he says. “Some kids want to eat a little closer to when their activity starts because they know they’ll get hungry again,” he says.

Are nutritional needs different for certain sports or activities?

Yes — nutritional requirements for athletes differ depending on the type of sport. Endurance sports require kids to use a lot of energy over a long period of time. Endurance activities include sports like: 

  • Cross-country running
  • Cycling
  • Speed skating
  • Swimming

“The plate is going to look different for kids who do endurance training,” Bognar says. “Think of carbohydrates and fats as energy producers and protein as our recovery tool. Fats take more time to digest. So they can contribute to stomach upset in kids who do endurance sports because they’re not absorbed as easily or as quickly.”

Fats can also contribute to stomach upset if kids consume larger quantities too soon before physical activity. “However, they’re an important dietary component for brain and heart health, and they also provide our body’s energy for endurance-based activities,” Bognar says. 

Should kids avoid sugar during sports?

Sugar has a bad reputation for making kids hyperactive. But that’s not necessarily accurate, says Bognar. “Kids’ bodies require sugar to make energy and to grow,” he says. “Carbohydrates at their simplest are sugars. They provide the easiest form of energy to utilize when we’re doing an activity.”

Simple carbohydrates can provide kids with quick energy, with less chance of stomach upset. Refueling with simple sugars during halftime of an intense game or between games at a tournament can provide appropriate energy. 

Consider providing a sports drink or foods like cereals, applesauce or cookies. Your child’s body absorbs these carbohydrates rapidly, giving them access to quick energy.

What should my child eat after a game or workout? 

Eating a meal within two hours of intense activity gives young athletes the fuel they need to recover. That meal should include healthy carbohydrates and fat, as well as protein to help restore muscles, Bognar says. Don’t forget to include liquids to make sure your child stays hydrated.

How can I keep my child hydrated? 

Proper hydration is important at all ages. Staying hydrated protects kids’ health and improves sports performance. Water is the best choice to keep kids hydrated, according to Bognar.

How much water your young athlete should drink depends on their weight and activity level, he says. “The important thing is to make sure kids are drinking water each day and that they replace water that may be lost during physical activity,” he says.

What are the best sports drinks for kids?

Intense activity may cause kids to lose certain minerals that affect body functions (electrolytes) when they sweat. Electrolytes include:

  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium
  • Sodium

“Electrolytes have many functions, including helping our muscles contract,” Bognar says. “If we’re low on sodium and potassium, we may experience muscle cramping.”

It’s important to replace electrolytes during prolonged activity in the heat. A few sips of an electrolyte-containing beverage may be all a child needs, especially if they’re not participating in high-intensity sports, Bognar says. “Generally, young children don’t require an entire sports drink,” he says. These beverages are more appropriate for older children and teenagers who participate in vigorous activity, he says.

Nutrition Strategies for Busy Sports Families

Busy schedules can keep families on the go constantly during sports seasons. Getting everyone in the same place at the same time for a healthy meal may feel impossible. It’s OK to let go of that idea, Bognar says.

“Just because you get food from somewhere that’s not home doesn’t make it bad,” he says. “You can apply what you know about nutrition whether you’re at home or at a restaurant.”

Planning and making food ahead of time (meal prepping) can help keep family meals on track during busy weeks. You can:

  • Create a list of simple healthy meals and keep ingredients on hand for game and practice nights
  • Keep your car stocked with healthy snacks
  • Prepare and freeze healthy meals to eat later

What should I do if my young athlete is a picky eater? 

Some young athletes may not want to eat certain nutrient-rich foods. While picky eaters may present challenges, offering your child choices may help. “Choices foster a feeling of autonomy at every age,” Bognar says. Letting your child choose between two different carbohydrates or proteins can help make sure they meet their energy needs, he adds.

How can I get personalized nutrition information for my young athlete? 

Your pediatrician is an excellent source of guidance when you have questions or concerns about your child’s nutritional needs. They can check that your child is growing as they should. They can also refer you to a dietitian if your young athlete has special nutritional needs. 

Learn more about clinical nutrition for kids at Lurie Children’s.

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