All kids need to eat balanced meals and have a healthy diet. But should that balance change for kids who play on a sports team or work out?

Kids need to eat the right amount and mix of foods to support that higher level of activity, but that mix might not be too different from a normal healthy diet. Eating for sports should be an extension of healthy eating for life.

Nutritional Needs of Young Athletes

Kids who eat healthy, well-balanced meals and snacks will get the nutrients needed to perform well in sports. The MyPlate food guide can provide guidance on what kinds of foods and drinks to include in your child's meals and snacks. The child athlete, however, will have higher energy and fluid requirements.

Kids and teens who are involved in all-day competitions or strenuous endurance sports (like rowing, cross-country running, or competitive swimming) that can involve 1½ to 2 hours or more of activity at a time, in particular, may need to consume more food to keep up with increased energy demands.

Most athletes will naturally eat the right amount of food their bodies need. But if you're concerned that your child is getting too much or too little food, check in with your doctor.

Besides getting the right amount of calories, it takes a variety of nutrients to keep young athletes performing at their best:

  • Vitamins and minerals: Kids need a variety of vitamins and minerals. Calcium and iron are two important minerals for athletes:
    • Calcium helps build strong bones to resist breaking and stress fractures. Calcium-rich foods include low-fat dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese, as well as leafy green vegetables such as broccoli.
    • Iron helps carry oxygen to all the different body parts that need it. Iron-rich foods include lean meat, chicken, tuna, salmon, eggs, dried fruits, leafy green vegetables, and fortified whole grains.
  • Protein: Protein helps build and repair muscles, and most kids get plenty of it through a balanced diet. Protein-rich foods include fish, lean meat and poultry, dairy products, beans, nuts, and soy products. Too much protein can lead to dehydration and calcium loss.
  • Carbohydrates: Carbs provide energy for the body. Some diet plans have urged weight-conscious adults to steer clear of carbs, but for a young athlete they're an important source of fuel. There's no need for "carb loading" (eating a lot of carbs in advance of a big game), but without carbs in their diet, kids will be running on empty. When you're choosing carbs, look for whole-grain foods like whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, whole-grain bread and cereal, and plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Drink Up!

It's important for young athletes to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration, which can zap strength, energy, and coordination and lead to heat-related illness. Even mild dehydration can affect athletic performance.

Thirst is not a reliable sign of hydration status, so experts recommend that kids drink water or other fluids before and every 15 to 20 minutes during physical activity. It's important to drink afterward to restore fluid lost through sweat.

Although many sports drinks are available, plain water is usually enough to keep kids hydrated. Sports drinks are designed to provide energy and replace electrolytes — such as sodium and potassium — that athletes lose in sweat. They can be a good choice for kids who participate in strenuous physical activity for more than 1 hour, because after exercising for 60 to 90 minutes, the body has used up its readily available sources of energy. Sports drinks are also a good alternative for kids who participate in sports but won't drink enough water.

Diluted juice is another option, but avoid sugary drinks and carbonated beverages that can upset the stomach.

The bottom line is that for most young athletes, water is the best choice for hydration. After the activity, carbohydrates and electrolytes can be replenished.

Pressures Facing Athletes

Some school-age athletes face unique pressures involving nutrition and body weight. In some sports, it's common for kids to feel they need to radically increase or reduce their weight to reach peak performance.

In sports that emphasize weight or appearance, such as wrestling, swimming, dance, or gymnastics, kids may feel pressure to lose weight. Because athletic kids need extra fuel, it's usually not a good idea for them to diet. Unhealthy eating habits, like crash dieting, can leave kids with less strength and endurance and poor mental concentration.

Similar performance issues can come up when kids try to increase their weight too fast for sports where size matters, such as football or hockey. When a person overeats, the food the body can't immediately use gets stored as fat. As a result, kids who overeat may gain weight, not muscle, and their physical fitness will be harmed.

If a coach, gym teacher, or teammate says that your child needs to lose or gain weight, or if you're concerned about your child's eating habits, talk to your doctor. The doctor can work with you and your child or refer you to a dietician to develop a plan that allows your child to work on the weight in a safe and healthy way.

Game Day

It's important for kids to eat well on game days. The meal itself should not be very different from what they've eaten throughout training. Athletes can choose healthy foods they believe enhance their performance and don't cause any problems like stomach upset.

Here are some general guidelines:

  • A meal 3 hours or more before activity should have plenty of carbs and a moderate amount of protein but be low in fat because fat takes longer to digest, which can cause an upset stomach. High-fiber foods also may cause some stomach upset, so it's best to avoid these foods until after the game.
  • If kids eat less than 3 hours before game or practice, serve a lighter meal or snack that includes easy-to-digest carbohydrate-containing foods, such as fruit, fruit or vegetable juice, crackers, or bread.
  • After the game or event, experts recommend eating carbs (fruit, pretzels, a sports drink, etc.) within 30 minutes after intense activity and again 2 hours later. Your child's body will be rebuilding muscle tissue and replenishing energy stores and fluids for up to 24 hours after the competition. So it's important that the post-game meal be a balance of lean protein, carbs, and fat.

And remember, when packing your child's bag for the big day, add a water bottle or sports drink.

Meal and Snack Suggestions

A good breakfast for young athletes might include low-fat yogurt with some granola and a banana, or whole-grain cereal and low-fat milk with sliced strawberries. Try bean burritos with low-fat cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes or a turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread and fruit for lunch. For dinner, serve grilled chicken breasts with steamed rice and vegetables, or pasta with red sauce and lean ground beef, along with a salad. Good snacks include pretzels, raisins, crackers, string cheese, vegetables, or fruit.

It's important to feed your child healthy meals and snacks consistently, even during the off-season. This will provide a solid foundation during times of competition.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2019 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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