High impact: What kids eat affects athletic performance
By Jill Castle, MS, RDN
With more than 53 million children and teens playing recreational, high school or club sports and countless dollars being spent on sport registration, athletic gear, lessons and sport camps, it’s no wonder parents are looking for that “edge” in their child’s sports performance. Nutrition is one area that has been proven to enhance athletic performance. In other words, nutrition is a game changer.
How can coaches and organizations bring nutrition into their athletic programs so that their young athletes reap the benefits?
BE SURE TO FOCUS ON THE YOUTH ATHLETE
As research evolves in the area of sports nutrition, it is evident that there are nutritional differences between the young, growing athlete and the adult athlete. Young athletes have different nutrient requirements, fluid needs and much more. As such, they aren’t mini-adults, and adult sports nutrition advice isn’t helpful (and may be harmful) to the young athlete.
Yet, youth-specific nutrition information can be hard to find. In any youth-focused sport, coaches and program planners will want to make sure the nutrition information they share is tailored to and relevant for the younger athlete.
Also, young athletes have a unique way of hearing nutrition information, and this is largely based on their developmental stage. For example, a child is concrete in his thinking, so nutrition concepts need to be simple and easy to understand. Telling a child to eat carbs and protein probably won’t mean much to him, but instructing him to have milk with meals, or snack on fruit and cereal is easy to understand.
Teens, on the other hand, can begin to understand more complex nutrition theories, but that doesn’t mean they will follow them. Teens listen more when nutrition principles are tailored to their lives, and they are influenced by stories and real life dilemmas.
Sharing a story about the dangers or drawbacks of supplements, like the collegiate athlete who was found to have traces of banned substances in his body and was suspended from play, does more to dissuade supplement abuse than just telling a team they can’t use them.
All youth sports organizations should find ways to bring specific nutrition messaging that is practical, safe and can be understood by the young athlete.
MAKE CREDIBLE INFORMATION AVAILABLE
There are many ways to bring credible nutrition information to your athletes, including placing nutrition resources on your website. Many national sports organizations offer nutrition information on their websites and allow their member organizations to stream this information to their partner websites, enabling sharing with their athletes and athlete families.
Adding nutrition resources, such as sports nutrition books, nutrition and sports websites and research articles highlighting the young athlete to your organization’s website is another way to make nutrition information easy to access for members and coaches.
Last, consider inviting a nutrition professional such as a registered dietitian (find one here) or a dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition (find a resource here) to come talk to your team, as she or he can offer general nutrition guidance and sports-specific information for young athletes.
CHANGE THE FOOD LANDSCAPE AT SPORTING EVENTS
Snacks, sports drinks and more snacks! Do little children really need so many snacks? Especially when they are playing for less than an hour? In my opinion, and based on the research we have, most younger athletes don’t need snacks or sports drinks for recreational sports lasting less than an hour. They just need water.
However, these facts fly in the face of the current food culture surrounding sports. Young athletes are routinely offered snacks, and often not the healthy kind. They are also frequently drinking the wrong beverages. And these two facts may ruin any good deed playing a sport can do for a child.
The culture of excessive and inappropriate snacking needs to change, and this can be done with a snack policy for the team. For instance, coaches and teams can provide an outline of appropriate snacks, such as fresh fruit and water. Not only is this a positive way to bring healthy food to young athletes, it also sets the tone for proper nutrition.
For the teen athlete, outlining carbohydrate-based snacks, protein-based snacks, and combination snacks, including when to eat them (this is called nutrient timing), can be useful for the athlete in knowing how to prepare and recover from intense exercise and competition.
Concession stands are part of the problem, too. They offer many high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods that do little to enhance the athletic performance of young athletes. Concession stand food can be improved by revamping the food offerings to include mostly (if not all) healthy foods and beverages that supply proper fuel for the athlete. The bonus? The non-athletes who eat there will get healthy food too!
There are many ways to bring more attention to the value of nutrition in the young athlete’s sports endeavor. As a parent, organization or coach, the more emphasis you place on nutrition, the greater interest and attention young athletes will give it. And this alone can be the edge that takes the average athlete to a new (and healthier) level.
Jill Castle is a registered dietitian, childhood nutrition expert, and youth sports nutrition specialist. She is the author of Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete and is a nutrition contributor to USA Swimming and US Rowing. You can learn more about Jill at www.jillcastle.com.
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