When it comes to food, the great thing about it is that we all have very similar nutritional needs: for the most part, what’s good for one person is good for everyone, and what’s bad for one person is bad for all.
Some people, including a lot of the experts, would have us believe that we need to go on special diets to suit our individual needs; but while that approach might make a lot of people in the diet and nutrition business wealthy, the truth is that our personal physiologies are much more similar to everyone else’s than they are different.
All of us, including young aspiring athletes, should eat a regular diet that’s low in fats and refined sugars, has plenty of lean protein, and includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds and legumes (beans and different pea varieties).
Athletes as well as non-athletes of all ages need to get enough calcium and iron, two important minerals.
Calcium is used by every cell in the body and is essential for bone growth and daily maintenance and support of adult bones. Foods rich in calcium include: dairy products, eggs, salmon, and green leafy vegetables, with collard greens and kale having the highest content.
(With respect to dairy products, one of the biggest sources of calcium, if your child is lactose-intolerant, it is recommended that you try organic dairy products, as these are usually fine for lactose-intolerant people to consume.)
Vitamin D is needed by the body to absorb and use calcium; therefore, vitamin D should be consumed regularly also. Vitamin D-rich foods include: fortified dairy products, eggs, mushrooms, salmon, mackerel, and sardines. Human skin also produces vitamin D when exposed to sunshine.
Iron is essential for the manufacture of hemoglobin in red blood cells. Hemoglobin is the protein that carries oxygen to all the body’s tissues. Iron, then, will give the athlete energy and strength. Athletes lose iron through sweat (and females also lose it through menstruation), so, it’s important to replace it daily. Foods rich in iron include: beef and lamb, liver, pumpkin seeds, beans, and whole grain cereals.
Nutritional requirements may vary just slightly for a youth who participates in sports. For starters, the young athlete may need to eat more, as he or she is burning more calories through practices and competitions.
Before practice or before a game, the athlete will want to eat a meal containing healthy carbohydrates and lean meat, such as pasta with vegetables and meat sauce. A meal should be consumed at least two hours before starting physical activity. If there are time constraints, the athlete may opt to eat a lighter snack, at least one hour before physical activity is to start. A filling, nutritious, high-protein snack would be, for example: yogurt or cottage cheese with chopped fruit and nuts. Another excellent on-the-go snack could be natural granola bars with a tall glass of organic milk.
It is recommended that children who participate in sports eat meals at home as much as possible, as opposed to from a vending machine or at the ball park. Healthy, whole foods are usually not available before practice, or before and after a game or competition.
Healthy snacks for before, during or after practice or games are also important, as they can tide over the athlete and boost energy until meal time. Candy bars should be avoided, as they’re high in sugar and low in other nutrients. The following are excellent snacking choices:
- Whole-grain, all-natural crackers, potato chips or tortilla chips (read package labels to avoid artificial preservatives and hydrogenated oils)
- Fruits (fresh or dried)
- Granola bars
- Trail mixes
To add nutrition and filling power to the above, spread all-natural peanut butter or cottage cheese on crackers; use sour cream or plain yogurt as a chip dip; string cheese sticks go well with chips, too; mix chopped fruits with plain yogurt.
Replenishing fluids is another important element of athletic competition. Sodas are to be avoided because of their high sugar content (and assortment of toxic artificial chemicals). The athlete should drink mainly water, before, during and after practice or competition, to stay properly hydrated. Natural fruit juices diluted with a lot of water (one part juice, three parts water) are also a good low-sugar, thirst-quenching choice. If physical exertion has been prolonged, or if the weather is hot, a sports drink may be in order, as it will not only hydrate, but also replace important salts that the body loses through perspiration. But choose sports drinks that have no sugar or are only lightly sweetened. Read labels and steer clear of artificial preservatives and artificial sweeteners.
It is important to eat a healthy diet not only before practice or on game day, but always, of course. After all, the food that your child has eaten in previous days will also be a part of what gives the athlete his or her strength and energy at game time.
By Marc Courtiol