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Eating for Sports

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When you play a sport, you make sure you have the equipment you need, like your glove for baseball, cleats for soccer, and high-top sneakers for basketball. You couldn't play the game very well without this gear. But how do you help your game from the inside out?

You shouldn't go swallowing a pair of shin guards, that's for sure! But you should consider swallowing some healthy food packed with the nutrients you need. The right foods and drinks can help you be a better athlete.

Professional athletes know this is true. In fact, many professional teams employ dietitians and nutritionists — people who know a lot about healthy eating — to help players choose the best foods. Read on to learn how kid athletes can use nutrition to their advantage, just like the pros.

Covering the Bases

All kids need to eat a variety of healthy foods, and athletes are no different. Everybody needs foods that include:

  • protein (found in meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, beans, nuts, and dairy foods)
  • carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are the best sources)
  • vitamins (as found in fruits and vegetables, for instance) and minerals like calcium (found in dairy products)

Kids need some fat, too, but that's not usually difficult to get. It's found in meats, cheeses, nuts, oils, and butter, just to name a few.

Consuming Calories at a Clip

So what makes athletes different when it comes to eating? The main thing is that athletes might need more food. Why? They burn more calories by practicing and playing so much.

School-age kids (ages 6 to 12) generally need between 1,600 and 2,200 calories a day. An athlete who is more active than a typical active kid might need to eat more. Calorie needs go up during puberty, so that can make a difference, too.

But each kid is different. It's important to consider how much time you actually spend being active and training for your sport. Attending a soccer practice can be an intense or light workout, depending on a variety of factors. Do you practice 2 hours a week or 12? It will make a difference.

If you're interested, your mom or dad can help you keep a food journal for a few days to get an idea of how much you're eating and if you're getting the nutrients you need. Usually, though, kids do fine just eating a balanced diet of healthy meals and snacks.

If you're concerned about your weight or your diet, you might want to talk with your doctor or a dietitian who specializes in helping athletes.

Calcium and Iron

Calcium and iron are two important nutrients for kids — especially athletes. Calcium builds strong bones, which are less likely to break under the stress and strain of heavy activity. You'll find calcium in dairy products, like milk, yogurt, and cheese. Other good sources include dark, green leafy vegetables and calcium-fortified products, like orange juice.

It's important to include iron-rich foods in your diet, such as meat, dried beans, and fortified cereals. Without enough iron, kids might get tired more easily. Girls who have gotten their periods lose some iron every month through their menstrual flow and active kids lose iron through their sweat — weird!

Kid Athletes Don't Diet

It's not usually healthy for kids to go on diets — to lose or gain weight. Coaches or teammates who say you have to go on a diet are probably giving you bad advice. Talk these issues over with your mom or dad and your doctor, if necessary.

Some sports emphasize large or small body sizes, but kids can play sports like gymnastics or football without going to extremes to lose or gain weight. In fact, because kids are still growing it's important to let your body grow to the height it was meant to be and dieting can jeopardize that if it's not healthy.

A balanced diet can give an active, growing body all the protein it needs. Some strategies, such as high-protein diets or protein supplements, can cause serious problems, like kidney damage. Skipping meals, eliminating certain food groups, or going on fasts (not eating at all or eating very little) can be harmful to kids.

Being busy can make it difficult to eat regular meals, so talk with your mom or dad about how to handle meals when you're at practice or a game. When you can, try to eat dinners at home. Research shows kids eat healthier when they regularly share meals with their families.

Bring on the Liquids

You've probably seen athletes drinking water when there is a break in the action. That's because athletes need water before, during, and after exercise. When people sweat, they lose water through their skin. Sweating cools the body down, but if you lose too much water this way, you could get dehydrated.

If you get dehydrated you won't feel well or perform well. Serious dehydration can make you sick enough that you'd need to go to the emergency department for treatment.

Drinking before, during, and after exercising (or an event) is the best way to stay hydrated. Don't wait until you're thirsty. Water is the best choice. Fruit juice mixed with water is another refreshing drink. But avoid sodas, especially caffeinated ones.

A sports drink is OK once in a while, but remember that these drinks have a lot of sugar and calories. Water is still the best drink for your body and it contains no calories. You may want to choose a sports drink if you are exercising vigorously for more than an hour or in really hot weather.

Time to Practice or Compete

When it's time to practice or play, you'll get energy from the foods you've been eating all week. But it's still a good idea to eat well on that day. If you're going to eat a meal, have it 2 to 4 hours before practice or game time. If you have a full stomach, your body will need to spend energy digesting food, leaving less for you to use in your game or practice. The best pre-game meal includes carbohydrates and protein for energy, but is low in fat and fiber, which can slow digestion.

But you don't want to be hungry either. Bring a snack, especially for long practices, competitions, or all-day events. Half a sandwich, fresh or dried fruit, or a small handful of nuts are all good snacks. Sports bars, or energy bars, are convenient, but they aren't necessary for athletes. You can get the same energy from healthy foods.

Avoid sugary stuff like sodas or candy bars right before you practice or compete. You might get a little energy boost, but it will fade fast, leaving you feeling drained. But eating and drinking the right stuff will help you play your best. Now, go out there and have a great season!

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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