High octane kids

By: Alexis Williams, Jul 14, 2010
  Article

When the video games have been quieted, you may find a little racer in your midst. Here are some tips on fueling them.

It's 6:30 p.m., and you've just pulled in with the kids from their swim practice. At 7:30pm, you need to be out for your own group run. The kids are starving after a tough practice. You need to get a meal on the table quickly -- the question is what to serve?

Parents of active children know fuelling the young athlete is challenging. They also know that the habits they teach the children now will be carried into their adult years, so it is important that they learn healthy ways to fuel their hungry bodies.

It's 6:30 p.m., and you've just pulled in with the kids from their swim practice. At 7:30 p.m., you need to be out for your own group run. The kids are starving after a tough practice. You need to get a meal on the table quickly — the question is what to serve?

Parents of active children know fuelling the young athlete is challenging. They also know that the habits they teach the children now will be carried into their adult years, so it is important that they learn healthy ways to fuel their hungry bodies.

Youth are exposed to just as much nutrition information as adults, from sources including coaches, peers, star athletes, magazines, radio and other media. The messages can be mixed, confusing and based on anecdotes rather than science. When the child is young, parents act as the filter for this information, but as the child ages and begins making his or her own nutrition decisions, the parent takes her or his place on the “sidelines.” Parents hope their efforts to teach their young athletes healthy eating will amount to something positive.

In amateur sport, nutrition is often overlooked as a fundamental tool to develop young athletes. As a registered dietitian specializing in sports nutrition, I know how important diet is for performance and the overall health of all athletes, regardless of age. In a conference presentation to nutrition and health care professionals on the topic of fuelling young athletes, I talked about the importance of educating not only the athlete but the parents and coaches as well. Whether you are a coach or a parent or you wear both hats, you play a critical role in developing our future stars!

So where do you start?

The new Canada's Food Guide is a great starting point for basic nutrition information. One of the most notable changes in the new guide is the provision of daily serving targets for people of different ages, including youth and teens. This change helps clarify the broad ranges of servings that were given previously. Keep in mind the number of servings suggested is for the average population, and may not be enough for active youth, especially those engaged in endurance sports like distance running. While average energy and nutrient needs may be met from these guidelines, protein needs (from dairy and meat and alternatives) and carbohydrate needs (from the grain products and vegetables and fruit groups) may be higher for athletes.

I recommend athletes eat small, frequent and balanced meals. This way of fuelling the body helps reduce the feelings of hunger and keeps the metabolism in high gear. It also minimizes the gorging behaviour that is common for athletes. While it may seem that teenage athletes can eat a parent out of house and home, they can be taught the healthy habit of keeping portions moderate but eating occurrences high, such as every two to three hours. Doing so is important for the development of good long-term habits to prevent unwanted weight gain during the off-season and when athletes are injured. Each meal and snack should combine carbohydrates, (whole grains, fruits and vegetables) with proteins (meat, fish, poultry, meat alternatives, dairy and dairy alternatives). Taken in tandem, the carbs provide the necessary energy to keep going, while the protein provides satiety and nutrients needed for muscle repair. Healthy fats from plant sources and fish are also an important part of our diets. These fats promote growth and development as well as heart health.

Similar to adults, youth are challenged by the timing of practices and games and the need to plan their foods. Skipping breakfast before early practices or gorging after a late practice is all too common. Help children by packing them snacks and having easy to grab foods available. For an early practice, a light snack of quick absorbing carbohydrates (like fruit smoothies or toast) before the workout works well. A breakfast baggy of homemade trail mix is a good way to get the necessary carbohydrates and protein needed after exercise. Although many schools are making efforts to offer healthier choices in vending machines and cafeterias, packing snacks is usually a better option. For evening practices that take place around the dinner hour, I recommend breaking the typical dinner into two smaller meals: e.g. a sandwich mid-afternoon and then a lighter meal such as grilled chicken salad or vegetables and bean soup after the practice.

Fluids are essential for young athletes. Studies on youth and hydration show that children often become dehydrated if not reminded to drink at regular intervals. Additionally, children are more susceptible to heat-related illnesses because they are less efficient at cooling their bodies. To sell the importance of hydration to youngsters, emphasize the need to be well hydrated for optimal sport performance, particularly for games requiring hand-eye coordination skills. When it comes to fluids, sports drinks or fruit flavoured water products may enhance hydration, which is beneficial for activities lasting longer than one hour. Serving cool fluids that appeal to young athletes encourages drinking.

Despite the fact that sports drinks encourage better hydration, parents and coaches should discourage unnecessary use of sports drinks, such as drinking them during non-active times or during short-duration activities. Kids can have too much of a good thing and excess sports drinks can lead to tooth decay, excess sodium intake and weight gain from the unused calories. As an alternative to commercial flavoured water, you can make your own by adding some fruit slices (oranges, grapefruit, strawberries) to the water in your water bottle. These beverages are suitable for drinking during the day as well as for shorter-duration activities when carbohydrates are not needed. Parents and coaches should enforce fluid breaks every 15 to 20 minutes during practices and training. Encourage young children (10 and under) to drink about 1/3 to 1/2 cup at breaks and older children to drink 3/4 to 1 cup at each scheduled fluid break. As with adults, fluid needs are dependent on body size and sweat rate, so older teens who eat as much as adults may need to drink more.

Tournaments and out-of-town meets often necessitate stopping for a quick meal. Coaches and parents should plan to stop at family-style restaurants that offer healthy choices. If fast-food is the only option, educate youth on healthier choices at the places they will be stopping. Subs, chili, soups, sandwiches and vegetarian pizza are more wholesome choices and are usually available at most fast-food outlets. Discourage consumption of high-fat, fried foods as they are poor nutritional choices and often lead to lethargic performance. Whenever possible, pack a bag or cooler of portable snacks including dried fruit bars, homemade trail mix, low fat milk or soy milk drink boxes, lower sugar or lower fat granola bars, low-fat muffins, wraps or bagel pieces with nut butter. Encourage hydration by packing lots of water bottles.

Since many families struggle with multiple activities each night and have little time to prepare healthy dinners, a weekly menu plan is essential. A menu plan should involve older children and indicate who is responsible for shopping, preparation and cooking. A good plan guides grocery shopping and limits the reliance on take-out and processed foods. The Dietitians of Canada website (dietitians.ca) provides some great meal planning resources under the "Eat Well Live Well Nutrition Month" section.

Young athletes must deal with peer pressure. Sometimes poor self image can lead them to consider using supplements to achieve a certain physique. Parents and coaches need to educate young athletes on the dangers and lack of effectiveness of many readily available supplements. Without this education, youth are often persuaded into using dangerous supplements by advertising from "ripped" sports heroes or older peers who have more developed bodies. Try to discourage dieting and restrictive eating patterns by discussing with teens and children that food is fuel and energy for their activities; it doesn’t exist just to make them look a certain way.

Regardless of your role as a parent or coach, you must always keep in mind that most basic principle of coaching — keep it fun. And remember to get everyone involved in making healthy meals and snacks and trying new foods. Your little star will be happy, and so will you!

Alexis Williams, B.A.Sc., M.A.N., RD, is a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer. She counsels all types of people, including athletes, on how to eat for better performance and to improve their overall health. Alexis uses practical eating and strategies to guide her clients toward achieving their goals. She believes that nutrition and activity go hand-in-hand to shaping a healthy lifestyle.