Nutrition is one of the most important factors required to support the developmental and competitive goals of young athletes. Food in means fuel out – what you put into your body affects its performance and its ability to heal and adjust to increased training demands. The habits athletes develop now will facilitate their future success.
A thoughtful nutrition program will support the growth of young athletes. Here are three of the most important factors to consider before, during and after exercise :
- adequate energy and nutrients from food
- enough fluids and electrolytes to keep the body hydrated
- the right balance of nutrients from foods and supplements, if needed.
Some additional priorities include:
- adjusting energy intake to support optimal body function and composition
- what to eat and drink before, during, and after competing
- carbohydrate, protein and fat intakes for improved performance and recovery time
- how to prevent dehydration
- strategies to improve endurance
- safe and appropriate use of dietary supplements
- training in special conditions, such as high altitude and extreme temperatures
Two resources that address these topics in more detail include a position paper by the Dietitians of Canada (2016)and the OGC Tumbling blog post (2010) (really helpful and practical tips for parents and athletes).
A healthy nutrition program requires collaboration among parents, athletes, coaches and team mates. Together we can foster a culture of health eating, smart choices, and share practical tips to ensure athletes can stick to eating habits during busy scheduling, travel, and on training and competition days.
Tips for Parents
Here are three common questions parents ask related to nutrition, and a few ideas to help you address them.
What can parents do when athletes have to do most of their eating in the car between practices and events?
Scheduling can be a challenge, especially if you have more than one competitive athlete, or train in different cities than where you live. Parents and athletes can feel overwhelmed with the constant time pressures, traffic, running late, forgetting items, and balancing life demands.
- Dedicate time. Pick one day in the week where you plan ahead and prepare on-the-go meals. Determine the weekly travel and training schedule, and map out how many meals or snacks are required, and what food you’ll need. Ideally, do this before you get your weekly groceries so you can shop efficiently.
- Create a meal preparation routine. Make a list of common foods (e.g., protein, carbohydrates, vegetables, fruits and dry/prepared snacks). Prepare your food containers, coolers, ice packs, thermoses or other utensils required. Keep the routine simple and strategic.
- Establish the space. Put signs, schedules and meal plans up in your kitchen where everyone can see it, learn it, and help out. It helps everyone if parents, caregivers and siblings are on the same page and can help out when needed – remember, it’s a team effort!
How can parents get their athletes to eat less junk food, often so prevalent at event venues?
The temptation from event sponsors, grandparents, team parents and thoughtful community members are prevalent at many event venues. The food smells so good and is convenient, especially if we haven’t planned ahead or are unable to say no. But convenience doesn’t mean healthy.
- Talk about the effects of eating certain foods on the body’s ability to perform or recover from a competition. Help athletes understand the impact of junk food on their performance. Practice saying ‘no thank you’ politely – it gets easier with experience.
- Talk with your athletes before events and decide ahead of time if you will purchase food or snacks on site, and if so, what type of food will fit your nutrition program.
- If you would like to support sponsors (and not eat the food or snacks available) – offer a donation or pay-it-forward and pay for the next person in line. Volunteers and parents can also collaborate in planning events to help ensure better food and snack options are available. Let’s set an expectation on the quality of the foods we feed both athletes and the people who come to support them.
What should a parent do when their athlete is also a “picky eater?”
- Planning ahead is key with picky eaters. Using Canada’s Food Guide, have them brainstorm a list of options for each food group. Put the list up where it’s visible and can be easily referenced, so there are fewer negotiations when it comes time to prepare or pack meals.
- Develop an agreement on when and how to try new foods – but make it a habit to try new things, in a fun way. Research food options together and make a list of what looks appetizing and what they would be willing to try. What foods have they tried at a friend’s house or at a restaurant? It will be important over time to expand the variety of foods for the picky eater, especially to accommodate eating-on-the-go or traveling.
- Focus on ensuring balanced meals from across the food groups at each meal.
- Let the picky eater take the lead and responsibility for their healthy eating. Provide information, create opportunities for them to meet with nutritional experts, and encourage them to do their own research. We only get one body – we have to learn how to take good care of it if we want it to perform.
How can I get my parents and coaches to stop pestering me about what I eat?
Your parents, caregivers and coaches are part of broader team to help you grow as an individual and an athlete. What you might feel is ‘pestering’ is probably them trying to express how much they care for you.
- Demonstrate that you are willing to take an active role in your nutrition program.
- Take the initiative to research and learn about nutrition options for athletes.
- Make time on the weekend to plan ahead to ensure health eating habits.
- Make a list of food preferences, and help to make a weekly nutrition schedule.
- Make healthier food choices and say no more-often to junk food.
How can I use technology to help guide my nutrition planning?
Nutrition guidelines can be overwhelming. You’ve heard it before, “there’s an App for that!” You and your family can leverage technology to help navigate busy schedules and complex nutrition information. Here are two resources to help you get started.
From Health Canada, My Food Guide is an interactive tool that customizes Canada’s Food Guide just for athletes. Creating your personalized guide takes about five minutes. You can then print it and stick it on your fridge for quick and easy reference! It helps you:
- learn how many Food Guide Servings you need to eat from each of the four food groups
- choose your favourite types of foods from each food group
- see how much food is in one Food Guide Serving
- choose physical activities you enjoy
From the Dietitians of Canada, The eaTracker helps you track your eating and activity choices, analyze your recipes, plan your meals and more. Use eaTracker to check your food and activity choices, analyze your recipes and plan your meals. Sign up to set goals and track your progress.
Developing a balanced nutrition program that complements your development and training needs takes time and focused attention. Set aside time each week to plan, prepare and learn good nutrition habits. Both parents and athletes should be involved as this helps to increase the overall health and wellbeing of the entire family.
- Be informed: research, read, ask questions, get advice from experts.
- Plan ahead: success doesn’t happen by accident. Create time and space to think about and plan your nutrition program just like you prepare for your competitions.
- Develop good habits: the little choices you make each day add up to long-term benefits for your body, mind and athletic goals.
- Work together: talk about health nutrition habits with your family and teammates and foster an environment that supports and empowers athletes to make better decisions.