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Fill ’em Up!

Fill ’em Up!

How To Fuel Your Young Athlete

There’s a lot of information out there – some of it very confusing – about how our young athletes should fuel their bodies. As parents, it can be difficult to decipher what is myth, and what is fact. It would take several articles to explain away some of the myths, so I will focus more on the facts to help parents keep young athletes in the best shape possible.

Middle and high school athletes get pulled in many different directions these days. From an academic standpoint, they’re often working with tutors or have homework to tackle; they may be involved in volunteer activities in the community; they may also have religious-based events on their calendars. And then, there are the sporting events, which involve practices and games every week. That’s not easy for youngsters to balance. With everything else they are trying to coordinate and balance in their schedules, what they eat and drink often falls pretty low on the priority list. But in fact, choosing the right foods and drinks is critical to an athlete’s performance and overall health and well-being. Creating a nutritionally balanced meal plan for an athlete depends on many factors, such as what sport they are playing; the intensity and duration of the exercise; and the athlete’s current physical abilities.

In order to provide as much information as possible to as many families as I can, I will keep my suggestions a touch on the general side and not specific to any one group of athletes or sport.

1. One of the most important points to impress upon parents of athletes and athletes too, is to maintain some semblance of routine and consistency with their eating.
That means whether it’s Monday or Saturday, they still need to have regular meals and snacks. It is so important that kids don’t skip meals or try to meet their bodies’ nutritional needs in just one or two meals. Their bodies need fueling at regular intervals throughout the day. If we put bad gasoline into a car, we shouldn’t expect that car to run smoothly. It’s the same for our bodies—if we do not put in the right balance of fuel, we won’t perform at our best. This holds especially true for athletes.

2. Young athletes are not only working to meet the demands of their sport, but their bodies are also still growing.
It is especially important to maintain an adequate protein intake each day. Our bodies need protein for energy, for cell and muscle repair, and for growth. Some of our best protein sources come from animal products, such as: low-fat or skim milk, low-fat yogurts, low-fat cheeses, cottage cheese, eggs, seafood and meat/ fish/poultry. Some very good plant-based protein foods are starchy beans (like kidney beans, black beans, black-eyed peas, and chick peas), as well as tofu, sunflower seeds, peanuts, and tree nuts. Try to incorporate at least one protein choice with every snack, and at least two protein choices with every meal.

3. Both protein and fat take much longer to digest than do carbohydrates.
It’s important to keep this fact in mind when planning snacks and meals around practices and games. Athletes need to have fuel in their bodies to perform, but they also do not want to be slowed down, or have an upset stomach, because they didn’t eat the right balance of protein, fat, and carbs. A heavy meal of fried food and grease would not be the best choice to have prior to a big practice or competition. Instead, they need to focus on lower fat, high quality protein choices mixed with some carbohydrate. Some examples might be a deli meat sandwich; several graham crackers with peanut butter and A glass of milk; a hearty granola bar with either yogurt or milk; peanut butter on a banana; a bagel with peanut butter or hummus. The idea is to choose foods that are a combination of high quality protein, some carbohydrate, and a little bit of fat. Very often, the importance of a recovery meal or snack is overlooked.

4. Very often, the importance of a recovery meal or snack is easily over-looked.
Sometimes, an athlete will not eat anything until hours after their practice or competition. By this point, their muscles are pretty depleted of energy, and their bodies are tired. Ideally, I like to see athletes get in a small snack within thirty minutes after finishing a practice or game – something consisting of a carbohydrate plus protein combo. This will at least begin re-fueling their tired muscles, until they can have a larger meal later on. Things such as peanut butter crackers, or cheese crackers, granola bars, or yogurt are all decent choices.

5. In terms of fluids, water of course is a superb choice – for before, during, and after a game or practice.
But when the practice or game is particularly strenuous, or long, or done in hot weather, electrolyte replacement beverages can be really helpful. Most contain not only sodium, potassium, and magnesium, but also a carbohydrate source to provide some energy. How much should be consumed depends so much on the sport being played. The important thing for athletes to remember is that they need to hydrate their bodies – with SOME kind of fluid or electrolyte replacer – before, during and after the sporting event. It’s important to continue drinking fluids for several hours after the event is over.

As parents, we take great pride in seeing our young athletes compete in sporting events. It helps to shape so much of their young character. To give them the greatest opportunity to shine their brightest and do their best, it’s so important to help them make sound nutritional choices.

Patty Lafratta
“Real Mom” Patty LaFratta is a pediatric dietitian in private practice and serves as consulting dietitian at Tree of Life Services. She and her husband live in Richmond with their three sons, ages 4, 8, and 11.
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