An optimal diet offers numerous benefits for active children or adolescents. It helps to improve energy levels, avoid deficiencies, recover after training sessions, prevent injuries, and optimize performance. However, many young athletes do not eat an adequate diet and could benefit from small simple changes. Here are 4 tips to optimize nutrition for young athletes.
The prevalence of eating disorders is higher in athletes than non-athletes and has been on the increase in the last two decades. Some young athletes chronically don’t eat enough calories compared to their energy expenditure. A persistent energy deficit can have serious consequences on health, for example decrease bone density, lead to amenorrhea (the absence of periods for 3 months or more), decrease the metabolism, increase the risk of injuries and infections, cause gastrointestinal issues and vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and reduce sports performance. If you suspect that your child or adolescent isn’t eating enough to meet his or her energy needs, we recommend that you speak to a doctor or registered dietitian.
It’s important for active children and adolescents to eat three meals a day with snacks between meals, as well as before and after exercise. That will enable them to meet their calorie and nutrient needs, ensure a steady release of energy throughout the day, and optimize recovery after exercise. Snacks can include for example fresh fruits, nuts and dried fruits, yogurt, cheese, homemade bars or muffins, or raw vegetables and hummus.
A varied and balanced diet will generally fulfil a young athletes’ nutritional needs. They are particularly at risk of iron and calcium deficiencies, especially during growth spurts, since these nutrients are then used for growth and exercise at the same time. It’s important to include in their diet dairy products or alternatives such as milk, enriched plant milk, yogurt or cheese, as well as meat or alternatives such as chicken, fish, tofu or pulses. Young athletes who show signs of fatigue should speak to their doctor to check whether their iron level and stores are adequate. Vitamin and mineral supplements are not recommended, except for young athletes who have a more restrictive diet, such as vegans, or who have a diagnosed deficiency.
Young athletes are at higher risk of hypothermia or heat stroke than adults. In fact, compared to adults, young people have a larger surface area, compared to their body mass, exposed to cold or heat. What’s more, their cardiac output is lower, which means that blood is slower getting to the skin, causing higher loss of heat. Also, since they sweat less, they cool down more slowly than adults.
It’s important to encourage youngsters to drink water throughout the day. Dizziness or headaches are signs of dehydration. In most cases, water is the drink of choice during exercise, and sports drinks are not necessary, except for high-level athletes who are practicing sports for long periods. In fact, children and teenagers sweat less than adults, and their sweat contains less sodium. This means that they don’t need to replace sodium losses during exercise. What’s more, most sports drinks contain a lot of sugar. Drinking them can provide an excess of calories and lead to obesity.