How can good nutrition improve sports performance in kids?

Written by Apurva Surve
Published: April 3, 2023
Apurva Surve is a consulting sports nutritionist and has more than 11 years of experience assisting fitness enthusiasts and athletes in achieving nutrition and performance goals. She has a bachelor's and master's degree in food science and nutrition, as well as an International Olympic Committee Post Graduate Diploma in Sports Nutrition.

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Kids need healthy and balanced nutrition to do well in sports as well as support their growth and development. The 2003 Consensus statement published by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) indicates: ‘The amount, composition and timing of food intake can profoundly affect sports performance. Good nutritional practice will help athletes train hard, recover quickly and adapt more effectively with less risk of illness and injury. Athletes should adopt specific nutritional strategies before and during competition to help maximise their performance.’ It means that proper nutrition practices and a well-balanced diet give athletes energy and stamina, enhance their strength, decrease their chances of illness and minor injuries, recover faster, and ultimately improve sports performance.

Growth and development are also rapid during childhood and adolescence, resulting in high energy and nutrient demands on the young athlete’s body. Hence, the athlete’s diet plan must provide sufficient calories, carbohydrates, fat, protein, vitamins, and minerals to support growth, fuel training, and recovery.

Nourish to energize your training!

Younger children require more energy per kilogram of body weight than adolescents and adults. For example, a 7-year-old would burn 25-30% more energy per kg body weight than an adult walking or sprinting at the same speed. Basal Metabolic rate or BMR is the energy expended by our body to maintain vital bodily functions such as heart rate, organ function, and internal body temperature. At least 60% of an individual’s total daily energy expenditure is the basal metabolic rate and is greater in children than in adults. Kids work out more in sports, so they need extra calories to fuel both their sports performance and their growth. 

Kids often think they need to lose weight to do their best in sports like wrestling, swimming, dance, or gymnastics where weight or appearance is important. Most of the time, it’s not a good idea for kids who play sports to go on a diet because they need more fuel. Kids can lose strength and endurance and have trouble focusing if they indulge in unhealthy nutrition practices, like crash dieting. 

What happens if young athletes don’t get enough calories? Prolonged low-calorie intake can result in early fatigue, growth deficits, delayed puberty, menstrual problems, muscle loss, and lowered immunity, all of which can have an impact on athletic performance. 

To meet the higher energy demands, young athletes should be encouraged to consume frequent nutrient-packed meals and snacks. Including healthy calorie foods such as whole grain cereals, pulses, dairy products, and nuts while limiting empty calorie foods such as carbonated beverages, low-fibre foods, and salty or fatty foods might help them get the nourishment they need.

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Charge up with Carbs! 

Macronutrients, like carbohydrates, fat, and protein, are broken down when you exercise. Carbohydrates are the preferred source of fuel for athletes as they provide glucose. Glucose which is stored in muscle and liver as glycogen is readily available and quickly provides energy for the working muscles. Athletes need to have enough glycogen in their muscles before they start training so that they don’t get tired as quickly. 

Eating complex carbs such as wholegrain cereals and millet and starchy vegetables three to four hours before training sessions and simple carbohydrates such as bananas, dates, and jam sandwiches one hour before training sessions will help children fill up their muscle glycogen levels. Complex carbs break down slowly and hence provide sustained energy. Simple carbs, on the other hand, digest quickly and deliver glucose to the working muscles during exercise. Good sources of carbs include fruits, vegetables, whole grains and millet. These foods not only provide energy but also fibre and micronutrients like vitamins and minerals to keep the kids healthy.

Here are some examples of carbohydrates food choices for an athlete’s diet plan

Fat sources
Good main meal choices Whole wheat rotisMillet rotisWholegrain pastaBaked or boiled potatoesSweet potatoesSweetcornWholegrain bread, rolls, pitta, wrapsWholegrain breakfast cerealsPorridge/oatmealDals, pulses, lentils
Good snack choices Fresh fruit, e.g. apples, pears, oranges,peaches, apricots, bananas, grapes, kiwis, strawberries,mangoDried fruit, e.g. raisins, apricots, figsWholegrain crackersCereal barsPlain popcorn
Choose less often White bread and rollsWhite riceBiscuitscarbonated drinks and candies

Proteins help build and repair muscle, as well as promote bone health and the immune system. Muscle tissue breakdown occurs during exercise and athletic training. Proteins aid in the rebuilding of muscle tissue and the improvement of muscle quality in young athletes. Protein deficiency results in muscle mass loss, anaemia, lowered immunity, and delayed growth. Athletes that consume a low amount of protein may experience little to no training improvements, as well as frequent injuries and delayed recovery. 

Young athletes can achieve their daily protein requirements by eating two to three portions of protein-rich foods such as cheese, milk, yoghurt, pulses, lentils, nuts, and soya. Combining protein and carbs after exercise, such as breakfast cereal with milk, chicken/paneer sandwiches or wraps, and fruit yoghurt with nuts, will help the athlete recover faster. 

Will consuming more protein make young athletes stronger? According to research, eating more protein results in no additional gains in muscle growth or strength. Protein consumed more than a young athlete’s needs will be used as fuel or excreted, rather than being synthesized into muscle. This process of excretion through urine places additional stress on the liver and kidneys.

The fact about fats… 

Fat is required for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K), supply of essential fatty acids, the protection of vital organs, and insulation. It is utilized to provide energy for both daily tasks and sports and exercise.

‘Good’ fats are unsaturated fats that provide a variety of health benefits, including heart protection, anti-inflammatory properties, and benefits to skin and hair health. Saturated fats and trans fats have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and cancer. Young athletes should try to avoid these fats entirely by looking for hydrogenated oils and partially hydrogenated oils on food labels.

Since fats are slowly digested, athletes need to avoid fatty foods before their training sessions. Good or healthy fats can be incorporated into other main meals in the athlete’s diet throughout the day. 

  Fat sources
Good for athletes! Monounsaturated fats: olive oil, avocados, nuts, peanut butterOmega-3 fats: sardines, salmon, mackerel, tuna, flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds
Use moderately  Polyunsaturated fats: sunflower oil, corn oil, safflower oilSaturated fats: Butter, ghee, dairy
Avoid Trans fats: some margarine and spreads, biscuits, pastries, pies, cakes, takeaway fried food, and products containing hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils

Maintain your health with micronutrients!

Besides the calories and macronutrients, athletes need a variety of micronutrients (vitamins & minerals) to enhance their athletic performance. Vitamins and minerals are substances that are required in smaller amounts but play important roles in a variety of processes, including energy production, nerve and muscle function, the immune system, brain function, bone strength, and regulatory roles such as fluid balance and muscle contraction, as well as healthy growth and development. 

Young athletes should get their vitamins and minerals from a nutrient-rich diet. Include plenty of fruits and vegetables (at least five daily servings) and wholegrain cereals, and limit low-nutrient foods such as sugary snacks, fried foods, fast foods, and soft drinks.

Hydrate to ditch dehydration! 

Dehydration can impair performance by reducing strength, energy, and coordination and increasing the risk of heat-related illness. Fluids aid in the regulation of body temperature and the replacement of sweat lost during activity. Young athletes need to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Proper hydration requires fluid intake before, during and after exercise or activity.

Hydration guidelines:  

Timing Amount of fluid
Before training  2 to 3 hours before 400 mL to 600 mL of plain water 
During training Less than one-hour activity:  150 mL to 300 mL of plain water every 15 min to 20 minMore than one-hour intense activity:  Sports drink (6% carbohydrate & electrolyte)  150 mL to 300 mL of plain water every 15 to 20 min
After training 1.5 L of fluid/kg of body weight lost

When to eat is as important as what to eat!

Meal timing is important and must be individualized to the athlete’s needs. Athletes must understand the foods they prefer that also help them perform well. To avoid stomach upsets on the day of the competition, athletes should avoid trying new foods.

Meals high in carbohydrates, moderate in protein, and low in fat and fibre should be consumed 3 to 4 hours before training. Pre-game snacks such as fruits, jam sandwiches, and dates can be consumed 1 to 2 hours before the game. Recovery meals, such as milk-based beverages, egg or paneer sandwiches, fruit yoghurt with nuts, and so on, should be consumed within 30 minutes post-exercise. 

Remember, a well-balanced diet gives athletes the energy and stamina to achieve peak sports performance. Sports nutrition practices should be followed for days and months and not just on competition day. Every child is unique and you can work with a sports nutritionist to understand what foods work best for your athletic kid.

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The views expressed are that of the expert alone.

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