Eat Strong: The Best Nutrition for Young Athletes

Written by Kathryn Wright, M.D. on May 11, 2016 12:00:00 PM

You’ve bought them the best helmet, pads, racket, bat, ball, glove or shoes available on the market. You’ve taught them how to protect their face from the ball, to keep an eye on the defense or how to slide properly into home. They stretch before practice to avoid pulling a muscle and you watch how they land or jump to make sure they can avoid a knee injury. If you’re taking every precaution to make sure your child can participate safely in athletics, make sure you’re not overlooking one obvious safeguard: nutrition. 

Lean, Mean, Protein Machine


As your little athlete runs, throws, slides, shoots or kicks during practices and games, their muscles are growing. To grow, muscles must first tear themselves down in microscopic form. Feeding your budding all-star lean, protein-rich foods such as fish, lean meat, dairy products, beans and nuts can help their bodies repair themselves faster. Remember this though: everything in moderation. If your child eats too much protein it can lead to calcium loss and dehydration, both of which are terrible for athletes and strengthening muscles. Try not to stress about it too much – as long as you’re making balanced meals for your child, they’re likely getting an adequate amount of protein to keep them going full force throughout the day. 

Don’t Skimp on Carbs for Growing Bodies

As more and more new diets focus on cutting carbohydrates, remember that your child’s body does not process things the same way an adult body does. Children need complex carbohydrates because it acts as fuel. Whole wheat pasta, bread, cereal (as long as it isn’t loaded with sugar), and fruit are broken down easily and provide much-needed energy your kiddo will need as they make it from inning to inning, quarter to quarter or period to period.



Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate

It seems as if kids can play outside in the heat for hours without even realizing how hot it’s getting and as they play, they lose body weight and fluid through sweat. Becoming dehydrated can lead to poor function and concentration, muscle cramps and heatstroke. This is why it’s incredibly important that you make sure your young athlete stays hydrated throughout the day. Make sure he or she has plenty of water both before and during games and practices. While sports drinks are OK every once in a while, they shouldn’t be the only source of hydration – nothing beats plain water in this department. 

Timing Is Everything


If your child has a game at 6 p.m., when should you feed them? What should you feed them? I get these questions a lot. Feed them too soon and they could be weak and hungry, especially if they’re involved in a sport that involves a lot of running or activity. If you feed them too late, they could feel uncomfortable and sluggish. The best rule of thumb is to eat a good, balanced meal two to three hours before game time. This gives your child enough fuel to make it through their game and feel strong without feeling either full or hungry. Try to include some complex carbohydrates that are easier to digest, like pasta, cereal or bread, in addition to fruit and a low-fat protein like yogurt, eggs or chicken. This means that early morning games might require that your child wake up earlier to get a healthy breakfast in and give it enough time to digest.


Dr. Wright is a board-certified pediatrician at Kelsey-Seybold’s Summer Creek Clinic in Humble. Child obesity, newborn care, and ADHD are among her top clinical interests. Being around kids makes every day at work fun for her.



Topics: nutrition for young athletes, what to feed a young athlete

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