By now we all know the importance of physical activity for our children. Children who are physically active and/or involved in organized sports having lower rates of obesity and generally have better overall health than their sedentary peers. Children who participate in physical activity on a regular basis need to be receiving adequate and appropriate nutrition not only support their increased needs due to activity levels, but to support their continued growth and development. Children need to consume a mix of foods to support a higher level of activity, but that mix may not be too different from a simply healthy diet. However, kids and teens who are involved in all-day competitions or strenuous endurance sports (like rowing, cross-country running, or competitive swimming) that can involve 1½ to 2 hours or more of activity at a time, may need to consume more food to keep up with increased energy demands. Macronutrients, micronutrients and fluids in the proper amounts are essential to provide energy for growth and activity. To optimize performance, young athletes need to learn what, when and how to eat and drink before, during and after activity.

Day to Day Needs
Balancing energy intake with energy expenditure is crucial to prevent an energy deficit or excess. Before puberty, minimum nutritional and energy requirements (caloric needs) are similar for boys and girls. Energy requirements for adolescents are more variable, depending on age, activity level, growth rate and stage of physical maturity. Girls typically experience their biggest growth spurt between the ages of 12 and 13; boys between the ages of 14 and 15.

AGE        MALE               FEMALE
4-6         1800 KCAL       1800 KCAL
7-10       2000 KCAL       2000 KCAL
11-14     2500 KCAL       2200 KCAL
15-18     3000 KCAL       2200 KCAL

Active kids may need an additional 500 to 1,000 calories per day. Adding calories throughout the day can be easily accomplished by adding 2-3 snacks between traditional meals. Snacks consisting of a protein such as; peanut butter, cheese, yogurt, lean meat, hummus or egg, with a carbohydrate such as: whole grain crackers or bread, vegetables (carrots, celery, broccoli) or fruits (banana, grapes, apples) is recommended for optimal performance.

Thomas Rowland, MD, a professor of pediatrics at Tufts University School of Medicine, offers this basic guideline: “Any child who’s training should be gaining weight normally. If weight stabilizes or falls over time, calorie requirements aren’t being met. Therefore, monitoring weight in child athletes is critical.”

In sports that emphasize weight or appearance, such as wrestling, dance, or gymnastics, kids may feel pressure to lose weight. Because athletic kids need extra fuel, it’s usually not a good idea for them to diet. Unhealthy eating habits, like crash dieting, can leave kids with less strength and endurance and poor mental concentration and in some cases lead to eating disorders. Similar performance issues can come up when kids try to increase their weight too fast for sports where size matters, such as football or hockey. When a person overeats, the food the body can’t immediately use gets stored as fat. As a result, kids who overeat may gain weight, not muscle, and their physical fitness will be harmed.

Water-Hydration Needs
The daily amount of water that a child needs depends on age, gender and weight. In addition factors such as temperature, humidity levels, overall health and activity level must be considered. The chart below provides total fluid needs-these would include water, juices and milk. Also, consider that fruits and vegetables are primarily water so this is just another reason to push fruits and vegetables-they can help with hydration as well providing energy and vitamins/minerals necessary for optimal growth, development and performance.

AGE         MALE         FEMALE
4-8         5 CUPS         5 CUPS
9-13       8 CUPS         7 CUPS
14-18     11 CUPS       8 CUPS

Before activity, athletes should consume 400 mL to 600 mL ( ~ 1.5-2.5 cups) of water 2 h to 3 h before their event. During sporting activities, athletes should consume 150 mL to 300 mL ( ~ ½-1 cup) of fluid every 15 min to 20 min. For events lasting less than 1 h, water is sufficient. For events lasting longer than 60 min, and/or taking place in hot, humid weather, sports drinks that replace electrolytes and provides carbohydrates are beneficial. Following activity, athletes should drink enough fluid to replace sweat losses. The consumption of sodium-containing fluids and snacks after exercise helps with rehydration by stimulating thirst and fluid retention.

Protein: Protein helps build and repair muscles, and most kids get plenty of it through a balanced diet. Protein-rich foods include fish, lean meat and poultry, dairy products, beans, nuts, and soy products. Too much protein however, can lead to dehydration and calcium loss.
Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates provide energy for the body. Some diet plans have urged weight-conscious adults to steer clear of carbs, but for a young athlete they’re an important source of fuel. There’s no need for “carboloading” (eating a lot of carbs in advance of a big game), but without carbs in their diet, kids will be running on empty. Good sources of carbohydrates include whole grains, vegetables, fruits, milk and yogurt.
Fats: Fats are needed to provide energy for extended periods of activity. While carbohydrates provide energy initially, fats provide the energy over the long haul. So, if your child tends to “hit the wall” with activity, it may be they need more fat in their everyday diet. However, fatty foods slow digestion, which is not ideal for an athlete facing a competition. Greasy, fried foods and fatty desserts are filling and may leave your athlete feeling tired and sluggish. Skip the fries or pizza before practice, and keep fat content on the light side and emphasize healthful fat that’s found in avocados, tuna, canola oil, soy, and nuts.

Research has demonstrated the prevalence of Vitamin D, calcium and iron insufficiency in the young athletes’ diet. Vitamin D and calcium play a role in muscle and immune function, cell growth and skeletal development. Calcium-rich foods include low-fat dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese, as well as leafy green vegetables such as broccoli. The best source of Vitamin D is the sun, but dietary sources include: fortified milk, egg yolks and fatty fish. Iron helps carry oxygen to all the different body parts that need it. Iron depletion is common in athletes because of diets poor in meat, fish and poultry, or increased iron losses in urine, feces, sweat or menstrual blood. Therefore, athletes, particularly female athletes, vegetarians and distance runners should be screened periodically for iron status. Iron-rich foods include eggs, leafy green vegetables, fortified whole grains and lean meat.

Game Day/Practice Basic Recommendations
-Your child should drink fluids in the 24 hours before an exercise session to ensure hydration.
-Have your child eat a smaller meal or snack one or two hours before the physical activity. Food choices should include carbohydrates and a moderate amount of protein.
-During exercise, your child should drink ½ cup-1 cup of fluids every 15 to 20 minutes. For exercise longer than an hour, they should eat 1 serving of carbohydrate (banana, ½ PB & J, small box of raisins) an hour as well. Sports drinks provide carbohydrates as well as electrolytes for intense or endurance activity.
-After exercise, your child should drink at least 2 cups of water to rehydrate. They should also aim to eat a carbohydrate food source no more than 30 minutes after their activity. Their next meal, two to three hours later, should consist of a 3:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio.
Feeding the active or athletic child starts with providing a balanced diet of recommended amounts of calories, micronutrients and fluids. As many parents know, feeding their adolescent active athlete may break your food budget, but it’s well worth it-the benefits of life-long exercise are well documented and an active lifestyle should always be encouraged. If you have concerns about your child’s nutritional status, contact a Registered Dietitian to assess your child’s diet and develop an individualized meal plan that meets their needs.

By: Deb Ahola MS, RD, CDN