Nutrition is a fundamental component of wellness and accomplishment in athletes. Discover what constitutes a healthy diet for young athletes and the importance of eating at the right time.
By Shiny Lizia M
Nutrition and fitness are interrelated concepts which aid and promote optimal performance in young athletes. Sports fitness includes components such as strength, power, speed, endurance and neuromuscular motor skills. Sports nutrition influences all these components and thus improve competence.
The key to achieve a healthy nutritional status in your child is to provide an optimum balanced diet. Food comprises macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats), which are energy-yielding and body-building; and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), which are protective in nature. Incorporating the required amounts of macro and micronutrients along with fluids in your child’s daily diet is necessary for growth and activity, to build muscle for improved fitness and to protect them from injuries. As junior athletes grow towards adolescence, body composition changes; rapid growth and maturation take place. Girls gain more body fat than boys and boys gain twice as much muscle mass during puberty. Let us discuss 6 important tips to provide nutritional support during this growth spurt and optimise performance in young athletes.
The primary functions of protein are growth and maintenance of tissue, enzyme and hormone development, the formation of antibodies to fight infection and fluid and electrolyte balance in the body. Amino acids from proteins form building blocks for the manufacture of new tissue including muscle, and the repair of old tissue which happens at a rapid stated in athletes. It is important to provide your young athlete with protein foods throughout the day. Protein intake should be 15-20% of the total energy consumed and up to 2g/kg body weight in male teenage athletes. However, there are dangers of overdosing on 2-3 times the recommended amount of protein. Protein-rich foods include milk, yoghurt/curd, paneer/cheese, eggs, meat, poultry, fish, pulses and nuts.
Carbohydrates (carbs) are the major source of energy for all body functions and muscular exertions. They are necessary because they assist other foods in digestion, assimilation and elimination. Carbs can be classified into two types: simple carbohydrates such as sugar, honey, fructose, glucose, corn syrup, brown sugar and foods made with these sweeteners such as cookies, cakes, ice cream and sodas; and complex carbohydrates such as grains, vegetables, fruits, peas and beans. Healthy sources of complex carbohydrates are whole grains such as oats, barley, millets – ragi, bajra, jowar, foxtail millet, little millet, brown rice and products that are primarily made up of whole grain, such as breakfast cereals, breads, and pastas; legumes such as lentils, split peas, and beans; fresh vegetables and fruits. Less healthy carbohydrates are the refined ones such as white bread and white noodles. The focus should be given on wholesome unrefined complex carbohydrates in the menu planning of young athletes as they are rich in fibre, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, essential fatty acids, antioxidants and also promote satiety. The minimum daily amount of carbohydrates recommended for an athlete is 300 gm if the total intake is 2000 kcal.
An adequate amount of fluids should be taken by children for better regulation of body temperature and to prevent dehydration and complications arising from it. Fluids can be in the form of water and sports drinks. The latter has the added advantage of providing carbohydrates for muscle energy, electrolytes, and will appeal more to children due to taste and flavour. Athletes should consume 1.5 to 3 L of fluid above their normal intake the day before the event; 0.5 L of water, 1-2 hours prior to the event and 0.6 L of water/other fluids 10-15 minutes before the event. Athletes should drink cool water during the event as it is absorbed faster and cools the body better than water at room temperature. Athletes should drink 150 ml to 250 ml every 10-15 minutes during the event to maintain fluid balance. Dehydration leads to poor performance.
Micronutrients are required in small quantities for growth and repair of body tissues, metabolic reactions, immune functions and elimination of free radicals. Increased physical activity may necessitate higher input of vitamins particularly vitamins C, B2, A and E. Losses of minerals can occur from strenuous exercises. Losses of iron and magnesium are likely from sweat, particularly in hot conditions. If dietary intake fails to compensate for these losses, athletic performance will be adversely affected. Hence iron, zinc and magnesium supplements may be necessary. But these should not exceed 1-2 times the RDA. Excessive intake can be toxic. Female athletes who train in hot conditions are likely to lose iron and calcium. They will require calcium supplements to maintain healthy bones.
Breakfast is a crucial meal as it supplies energy for physical activity throughout the day. Starting the day with a breakfast rich in carbohydrates (based on whole grains) and protein (such as eggs or milk) is essential. South Indian breakfast options like 2-3 idlies with sambar/pongal with sambhar; English breakfast options such as whole grains with milk/egg sandwich/bread omelette/smoothie made with fruit, yogurt/milk are ideal breakfast choices for athletes.
Recovery foods should be consumed within 30 minutes of exercise and again within 1 to 2 hours of exercise, to help reload muscles with glycogen and allow for proper recovery. Recovery foods should comprise proteins and carbohydrates. Examples include whole grain crackers with peanut butter and juice, yogurt with fruit, fruit smoothie, milk with cocoa and buttermilk.
When you eat is just as important as what you eat. The contents of the pre-event meal will depend upon the time of the event. Morning Event - the meal at night should be a high carbohydrate meal and the breakfast should be light such as cereals with non-fat milk, fresh fruit or juice, bread toast etc. Afternoon Event - the dinner at night and the breakfast in the morning should be high carbohydrate meals. The lunch should be light and consist of salads, sandwiches, fruits, juices etc. Evening Event - The breakfast and the lunch should be high carbohydrate meals followed by a light meal or snacks like pasta, soup, baked potatoes, yogurt, etc. The post-event dietary needs (recovery foods mentioned above) of athletes are also important for repair and regeneration of the tissue and replenish the glycogen stores.
Care needs to be exercised to ensure that junior athletes are getting adequate nutrition for growth and sports performance through their diet. It is important to promote and provide a healthy and balanced diet including cereals, milk and dairy products, lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs and legumes, fruits and vegetables, for your child to be an accomplished sportsperson.
The author is a Chennai-based nutritionist.
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