Young Athletes: What to Eat Before, During and After Sports

If you have a young, budding athlete in your house, you’re probably aware that your child needs to drink plenty of fluids and eat a balanced diet to function at her best.

But did you know that there are certain types of foods – and even combinations of foods – that are best to eat before, during and after the game to help him perform even better?

There are two key nutrients that make a big difference for athletes: carbohydrates and protein.

Carbohydrates will supply your child with the energy she needs to get through practice and games. Choose whole grains such as brown rice and whole wheat bread and vegetables such as peppers and carrots.

Protein is important for building and repairing muscles. Choose healthy sources such as fish, meat and poultry, dairy products, beans, nuts, and soy.

Nutrition related to athletic performance is a question I get asked frequently in our sports medicine clinic. Here is how I recommend families incorporate protein and carbohydrates into their diets before, during and after games:

3-4 hours before the game
Have your child eat a healthy portion of carbohydrate-rich food such as rice, beans, pasta, or potatoes. If your child is at school during these hours and needs an on-the-go option, try packing some granola made with old fashioned oats or whole wheat bread with peanut butter or cheese. The goal here is to make sure that the meal has time to digest but that your child is not hungry during the game.

Make sure that your child is drinking water throughout the day and leading up to the game or practice. Try giving him water with every meal and then 16 ounces two hours before exercise and 8-16 ounces 15 minutes before the activity.

1 hour before the game
Encourage your child to eat another carb snack such as whole fruit. Bananas, berries, or apples are an excellent choice. Fruit digests easily, so it shouldn’t cause any stomach upset and should keep your child from getting hungry during the game. It’s best to avoid processed sugary snacks, as they can lead to an upset stomach. Also, eating processed sugar can cause changes in blood sugar and insulin, which can result in fatigue and poor performance.

During the game
It’s important for your child to stay hydrated to avoid dehydration and cramping and to help with performance. Your child should drink water every 15-20 minutes during the activity when it will last less than one hour. When participating in a vigorous sporting event lasting longer than an hour, it is okay for your child to replace the water with a sports drink every 15-20 minutes. This will keep the blood sugar at a good level and will replace the lost electrolytes. Please keep in mind that sports drinks are meant to be consumed during or after vigorous exercise and are not intended for everyday consumption.

After the game
Within an hour after the game, kids should enjoy another snack such as fruit, or if it’s available, chocolate milk. Because chocolate milk has a 4-to-1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein, it’s the perfect combination to help with post-game muscle recovery. Good post-game nutrition not only helps young athletes feel better after competition, but helps their bodies recover and prepare for the next time they’re out on the field.

Healthy nutrition is not only important for sports performance, but for healthy bones too. A well balanced diet usually contains enough calcium and vitamin D to maintain strong bones. When kids and teens have repeated injuries, calcium or vitamin D deficiency can play a role. In fact, stress fractures (a fracture that occurs without a traumatic injury) can be caused by inadequate calcium intake.

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Editor’s note: Information included in this blog post was originally published in the fall edition of Young & Healthy.

Kate Berz, DO

About the Author: Kate Berz, DO

Kate Berz, DO, is an assistant professor in Sports Medicine, a staff physician in Emergency Medicine, and a team physician at Clark Montessori and University of Cincinnati. Her areas of special interest include concussion management, care of the female athlete, and musculoskeletal injuries. She is the mother of two aspiring young athletes, Lucy age 5 years and Avi age 6 months.

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