Do you know how to feed your child athlete?

All kids need to eat balanced meals and have a healthy diet. But should that balance change if your child is on a sports team or working out? Maybe. Your child needs to eat the right mix of foods to support that higher level of activity, but that mix might not be too different than what is considered a healthy diet. Eating for sports should be an extension of healthy eating for life.

Kid swimming

Kids who are involved in strenuous endurance sports like cross-country running or competitive swimming may need to consume more food to keep up with their increased energy demands.

There are many ‘sports’ foods and drinks marketed to athletes, like energy bars and gels. In general, most young athletes do not need these products to meet their energy needs. These products don’t have magic ingredients that will improve a child’s sports performance, but they can come in handy if your child doesn’t have time to prepare a healthy meal or snack.

Because athletic kids are particularly reliant on the nutrients that a balanced diet can provide, it’s usually not a good idea for them to diet. In sports where weight is emphasized, such as wrestling, swimming, dance or gymnastics, your child may feel pressure to lose weight. If a coach, gym teacher or another teammate says that your child needs to go on a diet, talk to your doctor first.

If your doctor thinks your child should diet, the doctor can work with your child or refer you to a nutritionist to develop a plan that allows your child to work on the weight in a safe and healthy way.

What are the nutritional needs of young athletes?

If your child is eating healthy, well-balanced meals and snacks, your child is probably getting the nutrients that he or she needs to perform well in sports. A new food guide pyramid from the US Department of Food & Agriculture called MyPyramid ( can provide guidance on what kinds of foods and drinks should be included in your child’s well-balanced meals and snacks. Another resource is the Go/Slow/Whoa foodchart from the National Institutes of Health:

But kids who are involved in strenuous endurance sports like cross-country running or competitive swimming, which involve 1 1/2 to 2 hours of activity at a time, may need to consume more food to keep up with their increased energy demands.

Most athletic young people will naturally crave the amount of food their bodies need, but if you are concerned that your child is getting too much or too little food, you may want to check in with your child’s doctor.

Because different foods have different combinations of these nutrients, it’s important to vary your child’s meals and snacks as much as possible. It’s a good idea to make sure that your child is getting the following nutrients:

Vitamins and minerals: Your child needs a variety of vitamins and minerals. Brightly colored foods such as spinach, carrots, squash and peppers tend to be packed with them.

It’s especially important your child get plenty of calcium and iron. Calcium helps your child build healthy bones, which are important especially if your child breaks a bone or gets a stress fracture. Calcium-rich foods include 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 red meat, chicken, tuna, salmon, eggs, dried fruits, leafy green vegetables, and whole grains.

Protein: Protein can help build your child’s muscles, along with regular training and exercise. But there’s no need to overload on protein because too much of it can lead to dehydration and calcium loss. Protein-rich foods include fish, lean red meat and poultry, dairy products, nuts, soy products and peanut butter.

Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates provide energy for the body. Some diet plans have urged weight-conscious adults to steer clear of carbohydrates or ‘carbs’ as they’re often called. But for a young athlete, carbohydrates are an important source of fuel. There’s not any need for your child to do any ‘carb loading’ or eat a lot of carbs in advance of a big game, but without some of these foods in your child’s diet, he or she will be running on empty. When you’re choosing carbohydrates, look for whole-grain foods that are less processed and high in fiber, like pasta, brown rice, whole-grain bread and cereal. Fiber helps lower cholesterol and may help prevent diabetes and heart disease.

• Natural foods: It’s a good idea to pack your child’s meals with natural foods as much as possible. Natural foods such as whole-wheat breads and baked potatoes are more wholesome choices than heavily processed foods, like white breads and potato chips. Usually the less processed the food, the more nutritious it is.

Choose products with ingredients such as whole wheat or oats rather than white flour. Encourage your child to pick up a piece of fruit, rather than a fruit drink, which may have added sugar. Remember that sugar may be listed by another name such as sucrose or fructose.

Source:, Updated and reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD, and Jessica Donze Black, RD, CDE, MPH, Date reviewed: May 2005, Originally reviewed by: Jessica Donze Black, RD, CDE, MPH

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