The young athlete has a double whammy of increased requirements – not only does he require additional nutrition to fuel his activity, but his growing body requires extra energy, protein and micronutrients for growth and development. Having addressed the energy, carbohydrate, fat and protein needs of your young athlete, it is time to address other vital components of her diet.
Fluid is one of the most neglected aspects of the young athlete’s diet. The exercising child is at increased risk of dehydration due to a larger relative body surface, greater susceptibility to heat stress, and not being able to sweat as efficiently as adults. The impact of dehydration can range from impaired athletic performance to unconsciousness. Unfortunately, thirst often underestimates true fluid requirements, leading to inadequate fluid consumption and “voluntary dehydration”. For this reason, it is important to actively encourage fluid intake regardless of thirst!
Depending on your child’s age, try to encourage about 2 litres of water throughout the day by packing chilled water bottles in their lunchbox (try fun bottles with straws for the little athlete). In addition to this, make sure they drink about 500mL to 1000mL per hour of sport, with an additional half to one cup of fluid after sports. If you find your child struggles to drink this much, studies show that flavoured drinks that are served chilled increase fluid intake in children. Rather flavour drinks and ensure good fluid intake than insist on only water! For activities lasting more than 60 minutes, a sports drink such as Powerade or Energade would be best. Avoid milky drinks during sports as this can lead to diarrhoea.
Rigorous athletic activity can place undue stress on the young skeleton, meaning nutrition needs to be geared to strengthening the growing bones. Remembering that a quarter of the adult skeleton is formed during adolescence, this is an imperative time to provide adequate calcium, magnesium and phosphate to prevent overuse injuries and later osteoporosis. Magnesium and phosphate are easily provided in a balanced diet including green vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. If your child is getting adequate calories in a balanced diet, calcium supplements should be unnecessary. Try to ensure two or three dairy servings a day (one glass of milk, ½ cup yoghurt), or if there is a dairy intolerance, calcium fortified dairy substitute. If you are concerned, a good calcium supplement including vitamin D and if possible vitamin K is a good safety net.
Iron also warrants some attention in the growing athlete. Remember that every time your little one grows in height, blood volume has to increase too – and iron is essential to create this blood! Girls require more iron than boys, especially when starting to menstruate, and all young athletes require extra iron, especially if undergoing lengthy endurance training. Iron supplements are not advisable unless under supervision of a healthcare provider, as excess iron can easily be toxic. The good news is, a diet filled with meat, chicken, fish, dark green vegetables and enriched breakfast cereals can easily cater for added iron requirements. To up the iron availability, try to take your iron sources with a vitamin C rich food – for example, half a glass of orange juice with an iron-enriched cereal, or tomatoes in a meal containing red meat.
Zinc is essential for growing muscles, healing wounds, and hundreds of reactions in the body. Not surprisingly this nutrient is imperative for young athletes. Good sources include meat, poultry, legumes and nuts. B vitamins, especially vitamin B6 and folate, are important for energy producing reactions in the body. Although requirements are not increased in young athletes, a deficiency of these can cause fatigue and muscle aches. Good sources of these vitamins are wholegrain products, nuts, and green vegetables. Lastly, remember that exercise, while being incredibly healthy, does place stress on the body. Young athletes may have an increased requirement for antioxidants to counteract this stress, so make sure to include sources of vitamin A (orange vegetables, milk, eggs, dark green vegetables), vitamin C (fruit and vegetables) and vitamin E (nuts and seeds).
Without worrying too much about individual nutrients, simply providing an adequate and varied diet for your active young ‘un should provide everything to help them thrive on and off the field! As always, try to focus on whole, unprocessed, natural foods, lots of water, and several small meals throughout the day.