Whether your child is a weekend soccer star or the next Usain Bolt, active kids need to be fuelled appropriately, not only for growth, development and general health, but also to assist them achieve their sporting potential, recover quickly from training and competition, and stay well hydrated.
But are those wedges of orange on the sideline enough? What about the pies, chips and lollies on offer at the canteen? Which is best for hydration - sports drinks, juices or just water?
Nutrient and Energy Requirements:
Active children, who engage in significant high intensity physical activity several times a week, may have higher energy needs than their less active peers, however with higher energy needs also comes higher nutrient requirements.
A well-balanced diet that provides nutrient-dense foods, not simply energy-dense foods, is particularly important to meet both the long term and immediate nutrient requirements of your budding sports star – So skip the chips and pies and opt for nutrient dense foods such fresh fruits and vegetables, reduced fat milks (we’ll come back to this in relation to hydration), yoghurts, cheese, nuts, seeds, eggs, lean meats, whole grain breads, pasta, rice, crackers – the foods that make up our core food groups on the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.
While discretionary foods, which although a quick way to meet energy requirements, should be minimised in the diet as they can displace nutrient-dense options and increase the risk of exceeding energy requirements and contributing to nutrient deficiencies.
Nutrient deficiencies can compromise not only sporting performance but also growth, development, immune response and even academic performance and behaviour. Children who participate in intensive training
schedules are at higher risk of iron deficiency, particularly if they are
menstruating as well. Good sources of iron include red meat, chicken (with the thigh being higher in iron than the white meat), fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans and leafy greens such as kale or spinach, but remember that plant based sources of iron (non-heme), are not absorbed as readily as heme sources (animal sources) and as such should be partnered with sources of vitamin C (many fruits and vegetables) to help increase absorption.
Meeting calcium, zinc, vitamin B6 and folate requirements should
also be a priority. The requirements for these nutrients can generally be met through a well-balanced diet that again reflects the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. Choosing a variety of foods from these core food groups will also assist ensure suitable sources of carbohydrates for energy, recovery and cell replenishment as well as protein for tissue repair, growth and maintenance.
Fats too have an important role in the diet however additional fat from discretionary foods are not necessary as sufficient levels of healthy
fat can be obtained from whole food sources such as nuts, seeds, avocado, eggs, meat and dairy foods.
Remember to keep your child’s sporting endeavours in perspective
– one 40 minute game on the weekend isn’t enough to warrant additional energy, however achieving a well-balanced, nutritious diet should still be of focus.
Fluids and Hydration:
On the other hand, one 40 minute game on the weekend may certainly warrant additional fluid intakes. The daily fluid needs of children should be met with water and the sporting arena really isn’t much different.
Sports drinks may be beneficial for adults who participate in prolonged physical activity to replenish carbohydrates, electrolytes and fluids,
but for children I prefer to see fluid requirements met with water, while
electrolytes and carbohydrates are replenished with an accompanying healthy snack, such as wholegrain sandwich with cheese and salad (which can be cut into quarters for a snack sized portion), a piece of fruit or yoghurt.
Sports drinks and other sugary drinks, like juices and soft drinks,
increase the risk of dental carriers in children and can result in children becoming accustomed to the flavour of sweetened drinks and refusing water as a result. Sugary sweetened drinks are also specifically linked to higher rates of obesity and lower bone density (Is it time to restrict the sale of soft drinks to children?).
Energy drinks and alcohol are most definitely not suitable for children either (yes, I put these two in the same basket, with soft drinks not far behind!).
Milk based drinks on the other hand are a good, nutrient-dense option that can assist to replace fluids whist also providing electrolytes, carbohydrates, protein and being a good source of calcium.
Timing of Meals and Snacks:
Beyond what foods to provide, the timing of meals and snacks for sporting kids is important too. Small regular meals are appropriate for all
children due to their smaller gastric capacity, as well as to assist maintain stable energy levels and concentration. Low GI foods are a favourable option for these reasons however high GI foods also have a role in providing an immediate source of fuel during prolonged exercise (over 1 hour) and to aid immediate recovery.
Children can often lose their appetite when they are tired or after exercise, so if late afternoon training is scheduled it will be important
to ensure children have a substantial lunch and nutritious afternoon snack. Also try to plan and pre-prepare evening meals well ahead of time where possible and avoid driving home past fast food restaurants.
Be sure to have a nutritious lunchbox available at weekend games or competitions as it can be tough to find nutritious options at sporting venues. (The Draft Healthy Community and Sports Club Canteen
Guidelines, are currently open for public consultation and will be the focus of my next blog instalment)
Encourage your child to eat a nutritious snack which contains both carbohydrate and protein within an hour of finishing intense physical activity and continue to encourage appropriate fluid intake for several hours afterwards, particularly during hot weather. Children are not good at regulating thirst or fluid needs and can dehydrate easily, so reminded them often to drink.
With that said – get out there, get your kids involved, role model sportsmanship and help them develop a lifelong love of this healthy habit.
Nikki is a PhD qualified Nutritionist and an expert in children's eating.