Nutrition Column – Proper Nutrition Important for Student Athletes

Fall, winter, spring and summer – these days, youth athletics are offered year around in many communities through schools, churches and recreational leagues. For student athletes, making wise food and beverage choices is just as important as practicing and learning the strategies of the game. The basic dietary guidelines for better physical performance are similar to those recommended for good health.  

Carbohydrates are the body’s main energy source for both sports and everyday activities. Student athletes should consume 50 percent to 60 percent of their total daily calories as carbohydrates. Good sources of carbohydrates include breads, cereals, pasta, fruits and vegetables. Eating six to 11 servings of breads, cereals and pastas and at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day should provide the recommended amount of carbohydrates.

Fat also provides fuel for the body. Advice for athletes regarding fat intake is the same as that for all healthy individuals – dietary fat should contribute approximately 30 percent of daily calories with less than 10 percent of total fat intake from saturated fat. Eating a variety of lean or low-fat foods from each of the food groups will meet the dietary fat needs of most children and teens.

After carbohydrates and fat, protein supplies fuel for the body. In addition to providing energy, protein is needed for growth, to build and repair tissues and to make muscles contract. For both athletes and non-athletes, protein should supply 12 percent to 15 percent of total calorie intake. Although athletes may need slightly more protein than non-athletes, athletes tend to eat more and therefore still meet their protein needs. Two 3-ounce servings of meat, poultry, fish or dry beans along with two to three glasses of milk each day will provide an adequate amount of protein for most children and teens.

In regard to vitamins and minerals, eating a well-balanced diet that contains a variety of foods should provide sufficient amounts of most vitamins and minerals. However, intense exercise can affect the body’s supply of sodium, potassium, iron and calcium. Eating a normal meal following competition will replace sodium lost through perspiration. Incorporating potassium-rich foods such as bananas, oranges and potatoes will help ensure potassium needs are met. Athletes involved in endurance sports and female athletes may become iron depleted even if they eat iron-containing foods on a regular basis. Therefore, female athletes, as well as all endurance athletes, are encouraged to have their iron status checked periodically by a physician to determine whether an iron supplement is necessary.

Calcium is another mineral of special importance. Both athletes and non-athletes need an adequate supply of calcium to build strong bones. Low-fat milk, cheeses and yogurt are our best sources of calcium. Other important sources include dry beans, fish with edible bones, tofu (if processed with calcium sulfate), calcium-fortified orange juice and dark green vegetables such as broccoli, kale and collards.

Last but not least, fluids are an essential component of any athlete’s diet. Athletes should always start an event well hydrated and then replace lost fluid by drinking chilled liquids at regular intervals during the event. Dehydration not only limits athletic performance but also can lead to heat stroke, organ damage and possible death. Children are at greater risk for dehydration than teens and adults because they are more likely to become overheated from strenuous activity.

For more information regarding your student athlete’s nutritional needs, talk to your child’s pediatrician or consult a registered dietitian.

by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension