How to keep your young athlete revved up without unnecessary energy supplements or "power" products.
Just as parents make sure their children are well-rested and have eaten a healthy meal before an exam, they must pay attention to their nutritional needs while they are playing sports. But with various vitamins, supplements, sports drinks, and protein powders and bars lining the shelves, how can you discern which items your kids need, and which are just extra expenses?
"Generally, with this age group, supplements, especially protein powders and sport drinks, are not necessary," says American Dietetic Association national spokesperson Marjorie Nolan, whose office is located in midtown Manhattan. "As long as the child athlete is getting enough total calories and staying hydrated, that will keep him or her healthy and developing at the optimal level."
Part of the reason dietitians shy away from making supplement recommendations is because most vitamins and minerals can be absorbed better when they are found in foods. If a child is eating a well-rounded diet, Nolan says, he or she doesn't need to take a vitamin. But are these extras hurting your child?
Vitamins, such as the classic fruity children's multivitamins that are taken daily, are safe for children of all ages as long as parents pick an appropriate one, Nolan says. Parents should look for vitamins, either gummies or chewables, that are approved by the United States Pharmacopeia, a third-party agency that checks for vitamin clarity and potency. If children opt for gummy-style vitamins, they should brush their teeth after eating them.
Parents should also make sure that kids take vitamins that are clearly labeled "children's vitamins." Adult multivitamins contain too much of some vitamins and minerals, which can be harmful to young bodies. Parents should also store vitamins out of reach so that children don't ingest them without supervision.
Protein Powders and Bars
Although some swear by protein powders and bars that promise to boost muscle tone, they can be skipped. As long as elementary school children receive about three to five ounces of animal protein per day, their bodies have all the protein they need to repair the muscles that are broken down during sports participation.
Protein bars that have a mix of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, however, can be a great snack for children. Parents should choose bars that are all-natural or organic. Both Luna and Cliff Bars are good choices, Nolan says.
"If you can read the ingredients, then it's okay," she says. "If you don't know what's in it, then you should skip it." A berry almond flavored Luna bar, for instance, lists organic almonds and organic cranberries as ingredients - good; another grocery-aisle option, which we would not recommend, lists high fructose corn syrup and maltodextrin - not so good.
Sports drinks, Nolan advises, should be avoided unless children are future Olympians or training at a similarly high intensity level.
Even though the drinks promise to restore electrolytes and energy stores, as long as children are eating and drinking normally, they should be able to bounce back from any competition without them. Additionally, there are a lot of unnecessary dyes and sugar in sports drinks. Others have caffeine, which Nolan cautions against (even in teas or energy drinks) because of its addictive qualities.
"People feed their children sports drinks thinking that they are helping," Nolan says. "And you just don't realize what is in it."
There are, however, times when these drinks can be helpful, like when children might be sick or playing through particularly hot or humid conditions where dehydration is common.
In most situations, instead of reaching for sports drinks, parents can offer fruits that have a high water content. Orange slices, melons, or bananas can restore hydration and also have a little bit of sugar for energy.
Nolan also recommends feeding children juice or juice diluted with water and a snack of peanut butter and crackers.
The Perfect Pre-Game Meals
A meal high in carbohydrates can be beneficial for athletes who participate in endurance sports like cross-country running. But, whereas many athletes eat these meals the day before their competition, Nolan indicates that they should really be eaten two or three days before an event. This allows the body to store the carbohydrates as glycogen, which is where muscles get their long-term energy.
On game day, athletes need to be especially aware of what they eat. A pre-competition breakfast should include complex carbohydrates and a little bit of protein. One option would be whole grain cereal with lowfat milk and fruit with peanut butter. Another option would be whole wheat toast with cream cheese, milk or yogurt, and a banana.
If a competition is in the evening, lunch should have a similar nutrient composition as breakfast. A turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread with fruit and yogurt is ideal. Great pre-game snacks include crackers with peanut butter and fruit.
"Allow about two hours for digestion for a meal prior to competition and about one hour for snacks," Nolan says. "On competition days you want to stick with foods that are more easily digested."