A child is not a miniature adult. His or her nutrition and hydration needs are not exactly the same, especially in sports participation. With the growth and availability of sports opportunities, you’d think that related nutrition needs would be a concern. To the contrary, sports nutrition for youngsters receives less attention than it deserves.
“Most children and adolescents who are strongly committed to sports are not concerned about nutrition as it relates to energy balance and obesity,” states a report from a 2004 issue of Nutrition. The interactions among nutrition, growth, and development deserve attention if a participant expects to achieve optimal performance and to avoid the injuries and problems that stem from nutritional deficiencies. Daily fluid turnover in adult athletes has received intense study, but that for children and adolescents hasn’t. That of adults may be two to three liters a day, but in youngsters has only been estimated at half that—and that has been based on sedentary youth. Although “sweating capacity is typically reported to be lower in children,” there is an increase in sweat rate when adjusted for body surface area. Besides the energy needed for normal growth and development, children athletes need to accommodate the greater expenditure from physical activity. That can vary from one sport to another. (Petrie. 2004).
Besides the fun, kids participate in sports to hone their skills, to experience the excitement of competition, to be part of a team, and to stay in shape, among other reasons. But they pay little or no attention to fuel and hydration needs. Parents and coaches, on the other hand, do. At least they should. Hectic schedules, availability of foods, limited time and extended days interfere with choices and timing.
Even though the number of kids playing organized sports is on the rise, fitness levels are on the decline, and are much lower than in previous decades. This partially explains the spate of sports-related injuries. (Cordelia. 2011). Targeted intervention strategies include ample hydration and nutrition. Because of maturation differences, kids need more protein to support growth, more calcium to support bone, and more attention to the prevention of hypohydration. (Bar-Or. 2001).
Sweat helps to cool the body, and what comes out has to be replaced, otherwise performance suffers and health is at risk. To prevent the dizziness, fatigue, nausea, and cramps that characterize dehydration, the young athlete should drink one or two cups of water or electrolyte within four hours of an event. If no urine has been passed, or if urine is bright yellow and minimal, another 1 ½ cups is suggested within two hours of the game. During the event, try to replace fluids as they are lost to sweat, about a cup every fifteen or twenty minutes if possible. Plain water will do, but if the event is longer than an hour, use an electrolyte replacement. Recovery is just as important to a preteen or teen as it is to an adult. The best way to determine post-exercise hydration needs is to weigh the child to compute weight loss, and to replace fluid at one and a half times the volume lost to sweat. One ounce of water (sweat) weighs one ounce, so the math is simple. A kid’s thirst mechanism is not well-developed, so you’ll almost have to force him to drink…but do it.
The nutrients in which young athletes are most deficient include carbohydrates, calcium, vitamin B6, folate and iron, the last being especially important to girls. Carbohydrate inadequacy leads to shortened glycogen stores and premature fatigue, especially if the game is sixty minutes or longer. Once glycogen is gone, fat gets mobilized and the child will “bonk.” The last thing you want is for the young athlete to burn protein for fuel. An active child will need as many as 500 to 1500 more calories a day than his inert peers.
Two to three hours before an event, give your athlete a light, carb-rich meal: carrot sticks and a piece of cheese; a little pasta; a small sandwich. Have him exert himself on a slightly empty stomach to avoid cramping, even fatigue. Chips, cakes or cookies, and candy are out. The protein your child needs will not build bulk. That comes with age. Normal muscle development will require as much as one and a half grams of protein for each kilogram of body weight, but need not be much more than fifteen to twenty percent of daily calorie intake. Reduce that during the off season. Thirty percent fat in the daily intake will help to supply needed calories. Reduce that off-season, too, lest you greet Tweedledee one morning.
The matter of iron deficiency is a particular concern for girls, especially after the onset of menarche, which can be a couple of years late for an iron-fisted ball player. Iron-deficiency anemia is a real threat for female athletes. Besides affecting performance and recovery, low iron stores impair immune function and may initiate other physiological problems. Supplementation is not intended to replace food as a source of nutrients, but in the case of iron deficit, it may be recommended. (Beard. 2000). There’s no need for your daughter to join the 50% of the world population who are deficient in iron. (Ahmadi. 2010). Raw meat probably won’t help, but getting 15 mg a day from supervised supplementation will.
Youngsters are often grossly misinformed about what they need and don’t need. Their peers and the internet are not always reliable sources of information. Some young athletes need only a minor tweak to their diets; others need a complete overhaul. If you feel inadequate, don’t be embarrassed. There are dietitians and sports nutritionists who can help.
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