Ask the Nutritionist: What Are the Best Foods to Help My Child Athlete?
By Leika Suzumura, R.D., PCC Nutrition Educator
For many parents, the topic of sports nutrition can get complicated quickly, and with marketing layered on top of that, flat out confusing. Here’s a breakdown of what children participating in sports should be eating in order to keep them energized.
The main nutrient that fuels our body is carbohydrates. The more “whole” the carbohydrate is, such as brown rice or whole wheat pasta, the longer the fuel will last.
Carbohydrates can be found in:
• All types of grains such as rice, wheat, oats, quinoa, as well as products made from those grains including pasta, bread and crackers
• Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, peas, beans and corn
• All fruits and their juice
• Milk and yogurt (although cheese is much lower in carbs and higher in fat)
Protein is needed for growing and healing, but the idea that children, and especially young men, need to eat loads of protein “to build muscle” is false. Eating 2 to 3 servings of protein is adequate for kids ages 6 to 12, totaling about 6 ounces in a day.
Foods with high protein include:
• Animal meats: beef, poultry, pork, lamb, seafood
• Nuts and seeds
• Dairy products
An easy way to remember the correct serving size for protein: the size of the palm of your hand. Keep in mind the palm of your child’s hand is much smaller than yours; their needs reflect their size!
Healthy fats are important to help us feel fuller longer and they help aid a long list of essential functions in our body. When eaten in large quantity, especially before a game, fats can make your child feel heavy and slow down their digestion, making it difficult for them to use their meal as fuel. The fat found in nuts and avocados are more supportive than cheese, fatty meats or deep-fried foods.
It may be hours between lunch and afterschool practice, so packing a few easy snacks to have on hand will help top off the tank without being too heavy before practice. It may be as simple as a piece of fruit, some trail mix, a granola bar or yogurt. Try to include something with carbs for the energizing aspect, and include a little protein and fat for the longer burn effect.
Proper hydration very well could be equally if not more important than the food we eat. Water is the most essential nutrient to our body. Carrying a water bottle can help make drinking water throughout the day an easy habit.
Leika received her undergraduate degree in nutrition at Bastyr University. She has dedicated her career to community nutrition with an emphasis on childhood nutrition and parent education as a way to support the livelihood of the next generation. Her approach focuses on bringing kids and parents into the kitchen so that learning nutrition is fun and delicious!