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Sports Nutrition for Children—Focus on the Basics

Sponsored Editorial by Dr. Charles Parmele, Annapolis Pediatrics

Children’s sports are an important part of many families’ lives and have certainly seen an exponential rise over the past couple decades. Parents have an understandable interest in what they should feed their kids before, during, and after athletics. As with many cases in our society, there are numerous sources of both good and questionable information. As with many cases, we as a culture are making it more complicated than it needs to be. A few basic guidelines and a wide range of kid-friendly foods should be more than enough to keep your child’s sports engine running.

1. Do not overfeed children empty calories simply because they are playing a sportprovider 2011 parmele

The vast majority of us tend to overestimate how many calories a child spends playing sports. Michael Phelps famously eats 12,000 calories per day while training. It is VERY unlikely that your child is Michael Phelps. A 100 pound child burns 335 calories playing soccer for 60 minutes. But remember that most kids don’t play the entire game, so they don’t even use that many calories. This is hard to believe because they are red in the face and sweating a lot, which is why we overestimate how much energy they used. A can of soda and an individual pack of cookies, which many kids get after a game, yield 464 calories and don’t give the child any useful nutrition (protein, complex carbohydrates, etc). These extra calories are stored as fat.

2. Hydration

The most important food to eat is water! By the time an athlete feels thirsty they are already somewhat dehydrated. Teach kids to drink water at every break in practice and every time they are off the field during a game. Sports drinks have a marginal benefit for ADULT ATHLETES under EXTREME physical exertion. The vast majority of kids would do better to drink water. It’s better for them and less expensive. If you are going to use sports drinks dilute them by at least one half.

3. Before an event


Carbohydrates are the primary fuel for muscles. Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, pasta, beans, potatoes (not fried), starchy vegetables and wild rice contribute to muscle glycogen stores and, when eaten in the days leading up to an event, give the body a healthy source of energy.


Protein contributes to muscle growth and repair, builds tissues, and stabilizes blood sugar. Adding protein to a complex carbohydrate prolongs the body’s blood sugar elevation after a meal without causing a spike. Adding cheese or lean cold cuts to a bagel, adding peanut butter to bread or an apple, or having yogurt with fruit are ways to get both protein and carbohydrate into the diet. Other healthy proteins include lean beef or pork, turkey, skinless chicken breasts, low- or non-fat cottage cheese or string cheese, yogurt (Greek yogurt is especially high in protein) or seafood.

4. During an event

The body needs easily absorbable simple sugars for energy during an event. Whole juicy fruits like oranges, bananas, raisins, grapes, peaches, nectarines, plums, or melon are great.

5. After an event

A small amount of complex carbohydrates and protein is great to help muscles recover, repair, and restore their energy supplies. A couple peanut butter crackers and a piece of fruit or a handful of trail mix and a box of chocolate milk or a bagel with cream cheese or peanut butter are perfect and won’t spoil dinner.

“Sports nutrition” really begins with basic, healthy everyday nutrition

Children should almost always eat foods with high nutritional value: fruits, vegetables, lean protein, low-fat dairy, healthy fats (nuts, avocados), and whole grains/cereals and pastas. Avoid carbonated drinks, refined carbohydrates and sugars, artificial sweeteners and high-fructose corn syrup, and processed foods. As parents it is our job to love them too much to let them eat poorly.

Dr. Charles Parmele is a Managing Partner and Chief Medical Officer for Annapolis Pediatrics and has been with the practice since 2001. Dr. Parmele received his BS with Distinction, from Cornell University, and his MD from University of Pennsylvania.

Annapolis Pediatrics can be reached at 410.263.6363 or annapolispediatrics.com

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