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Family Health Magazine - NUTRITION

Nutrition for the Sports-Minded Family
Feeding your active kids

Children participating in sports seem to be in constant motion. With early morning figure skating or hockey practices, swim or diving classes, and after-school or evening soccer games, meals always seem rushed. And don’t forget homework! Whew! This kind of schedule requires knowledge and organization to keep everyone properly nourished for each activity.

Good pre-exercise meals and snacks
The amount of food eaten depends on the size of the child

Fast Food

6-inch ham or roasted chicken breast sub,
milk, juice box,
grilled chicken sandwich,
milk, juice box

Hot Meal

Perogies served with a tomato or meat sauce, green peas, milk, canned peaches Mini pizza shell or english muffin for the crust, topped with ham and cheese. Salad, fresh berries and frozen yogourt
Beef or chicken fajita, carrot sticks, low fat granola bar, juice box, 1/2 cup frozen yogurt 2 cups spaghetti with 3/4 cup meat sauce, salad, juice box, 1/2 cup low-fat ice cream

Bag Lunch

Ham and cheese sandwich, mini carrots, juice box, 2-4 oatmeal cookies, banana Bagel with turkey breast slices, mini carrots, juice box, low fat granola bar, fruit cup

Snack Ideas

Peanut butter & jam sandwich, 2 arrowroot cookies Mini-bagel with a slice of ham, canned fruit cup
Juice box, 1 - 2 low fat granola bars, small banana, juice box Juice box, jam sandwich
1 medium banana
2 - 3 graham wafers, 1 low fat pudding cup, oatmeal raisin cookies, juice box Juice box, 1 medium banana
2 rice cakes with honey, small banana, juice box 2 slices toasted raisin bread, jam or honey, juice box
Cereal and milk, juice box  

Not only do your children need extra energy for sports, they also need good nutrition to support their growth. Childhood is a time of rapid growth and development. When children eat poorly, long-term damage can be the result.

  • Maturation can be delayed.
  • Kids may not meet their growth potential.
  • They are at increased risk of infection.
  • Heat exhaustion can result when fluid needs are not met.

In fact, scientific studies have shown that the amount of overall food energy, B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc young athletes consume is often not adequate. As a result, kids are placed at nutritional risk.

Symptoms of poor nutrition

  • Changes in weight, especially during competition season
  • Inconsistent performance can come from eating enough food especially those rich in carbohydrates
  • Mood swings, irritability and loss of motivation

Children who play sports regularly need more food energy and water. Apart from energy and water, their diets should follow the recommendations of Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating. Carbohydrate is the main fuel children use when physically active. If your children are active everyday, then they need to replace the fuel used playing sports on a day-to-day basis. This is similar to filling up your car’s gas tank more often if you do a lot of driving. Low stores of carbohydrates in muscles are directly related to reduced performance levels.

Carbohydrates are obtained mainly from two food groups: grains and fruit/vegetables. Active children need to make more choices from these two food groups. Provide them with two to three snacks daily to help meet their higher energy requirements.

morning activity (around 8 to 9 am)

late afternoon activity

evening activity

  • Eat a large evening meal the right before
  • Have a snack at bedtime
  • In the morning, have a light snack
  • After the activity have a full breakfast or lunch, depending on the length of the activity
  • Eat a larger than normal breakfast
  • Have a mid-morning snack
  • Eat a large lunch
  • Have a full dinner after the activity
  • Eat a larger than normal breakfast
  • Have a mid-morning snack
  • Eat a larger than normal lunch
  • Have a late afternoon snack
  • Have a light dinner after the activity

Timing of meals and snacks

Consider when your children should eat if they have a practice or game. Time their meals and snacks so that both carbohydrate fuel and fluids are topped up enough to prevent hunger during the activity. As prevention, food should be mostly digested by the time the activity starts to prevent upset tummies. Allow three to four hours to digest a meal and one to two hours for a snack. Planning meals and snacks around the activity is essential.

By eating larger than normal meals before an activity, the body has time to process the food for energy so it is ready for use. By planning ahead, you will reduce the number of missed or delayed meals or snacks. Eating in the evening after activity will not necessarily lead to weight gain. Your children’s muscles need carbohydrates to replace what was used in that late afternoon or evening game. Eating afterwards prevents a tired and sore body the next morning.

Besides the timing of meals, consider what is being eaten. Easily digested foods that provide the right type of energy should be on the menu.

Choose foods high in carbohydrates and low in fibre

The best carbohydrate-rich foods for pre-activity meals are those from the grains food group. Emphasize foods such as pastas, rice, breads and cereals. Bran is not a good choice at this time because it is digested slowly. Fruits and vegetables are also good sources of carbohydrates. Avoid those with tough skins, membranes or seeds, as they are more difficult to digest and can cause uncomfortable gas. Potatoes, bananas, canned fruits and fruit juices are usually tolerated well.

Choose foods low in fat

Fat slows down the digestive process and is not the preferred fuel for most sports. Limit the use of fats such as margarine, butter, spreads, cooking oil, mayonnaise, salad dressing, sour cream and cream sauces. Avoid fried foods such as French fries, onion rings, fried chicken and chicken burgers. Stay away from potato chips, taco chips, peanuts or mixed nuts, croissants, commercial muffins and rich cookies. If you choose commercial foods, they should contain no more than three grams of fat per 100 calories. The food is then considered low in fat.

Avoid these high-fat protein-rich foods before exercise

Instead, choose

  • hot dogs
  • cheeseburgers, chicken or fish burgers
  • fried chicken or fish
  • ribs
  • loaded pizzas
  • deli meats such as baloney, corned beef or salami
  • full fat cheeses (greater than 30% milk fat)
  • ice cream, cream cheese or other sandwich spread
  • fast food hamburgers
  • chicken wings
  • chicken thights or wings
  • sausage
  • skinless chicken or turkey breast
  • low fat deli meats (less than 10 grams of fat per 100 grams of food weight)
  • lower fat cheese (less than 17% fat
  • fish
  • meat cuts ending in the words 'loin' or 'round', such sirloin and botton or top round. Keep serving size around the size of a deck of playing cards

Choose moderate amounts of foods high in protein

There are three reasons why protein foods should be eaten in moderation before exercising.

  • Protein is not used by the body as a significant energy source for any type of exercise.
  • Eating too much protein at a meal reduces the amount of high-carbohydrate foods you can eat.
  • Protein foods are not digested as quickly as foods high in carbohydrates. They are more filling and often contain significant fat.

What and how much to drink?

Along with food energy, the need for water increases with activity. During exercise, sweat is produced in order to keep the body’s temperature from rising too high. This lost fluid must be replaced on a regular basis for health and the best possible athletic performance. Amounts shown on the recommended hydration schedule should be adjusted depending on body size.

Generally, adults as well as children do not drink enough fluids. Children should be encouraged to drink at frequent intervals, even if they are not thirsty. This is especially important when it is hot and humid. Children’s core body temperature can rise faster than adults, putting them at a higher risk for heat stroke. Avoid too much exercise in the extreme heat.

Children should be offered beverages they enjoy in order to promote drinking. Cool water is an excellent beverage for children in most situations. However, if it is hot and humid, diluted fruit juice such as orange juice or sports drinks may encourage further drinking. (Sports drinks may also need to be diluted.) Sports drinks are made with sugar, water and salt in a combination that promotes rapid hydration.

However, be aware that sports drinks are in the same food category as soft drinks. They are considered an extra food. This means that while providing energy, they do not provide any other nutrients, such as vitamins. Use them in limited amounts. Again, under normal situations, water is an excellent beverage for children while sports drinks are generally not necessary.

Recommended Hydration Schedule
(adjust according to body size)

When To Drink

How much to drink

2 hours before exercise 500 mL or 16 oz
At 15 minute intervals during exercise 150 - 300 mL or 5 - 10 oz
After exercise 200 - 300 mL every 15 to 20 minutes
To restore body weight 750 mL or 12 oz per 1/2 kg (1 lb) body weight lost during exercise

Planning ahead is the key to fueling a busy active family. If plans fail and you end up at a fast food outlet, check out their menu by asking for their nutrition analysis. You can also go on-line to check out fast food outlets and popular chain restaurants. Most have their menu posted on their websites. Look for meals and snacks that contain less than three grams of fat per 100 calories of food energy to provide the ‘go’ your active children need.

FAMILY HEALTH is written with the assistance of
Alberta College of Family Physicians
FAMILY HEALTH is written with the assistance of
Alberta College of Family Physicians
While effort is made to reflect accepted medical knowledge and practice, articles in Family Health Online should not be relied upon for the treatment or management of any specified medical problem or concern and Family Health accepts no liability for reliance on the articles. For proper diagnosis and care, you should always consult your family physician promptly. © Copyright 2019, Family Health Magazine, a special publication of the Edmonton Journal, a division of Postmedia Network Inc., 10006 - 101 Street, Edmonton, AB T5J 0S1     [WH_FHa05]
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