Good eating habits promote health, overall wellness, and may even optimize athletic performance. Bad eating habits, on the other hand, may get in the way of a child athlete’s progress and future potential.
When I work with young athletes, or speak to groups of athletes, parents and coaches, I am reminded of the many eating mistakes they make — unknowingly and unintentionally.
5 Bad Eating Habits for the Child Athlete
These are some of the biggest eating habits I see getting in the way of your child athlete feeling her best and performing at peak:
1. Skipping Breakfast
It’s estimated that about 20% of kids (9-13 years) and 36% of teens (14-18 years) skip breakfast. The reasons vary, but in the case of child athletes, they may include running short on time in the morning, not feeling hungry, or eating too much the night before, which can suppress hunger in the morning.
All growing athletes need breakfast, as it revs up their engine (metabolism), helps them pay attention in school, meet important nutrient requirements, and feel energized throughout the day. Almost anything for breakfast is better than nothing. Try a smoothie, instant oatmeal, a handful of nuts and cereal, a bar, or even a box of flavored milk.
2. Not Eating Enough Food at Lunch
Some child athletes forget that lunch foods are the fuel their bodies will use during after-school practice. Opting for a salad or a cup of soup for lunch, or a sandwich and nothing else won’t keep the athlete energized and ready to work out.
Lunch should contain a blend of carbs, protein and other nutrients. Try a sandwich on whole grain bread served with a cup of soup and fresh fruit, or the full hot lunch, which will provide a balance of nutrition. If school lunch leaves your athlete a bit hungry, pad it with an extra roll, fruit or milk.
What Should My Athlete Eat Before Sports?
If athletic practice doesn’t happen right after school, then a pre-training snack or early meal may be beneficial. Try a starchy carb-based snack such as a baked potato, bagel, or half a sandwich, or flip-flop dinner and snack: serve dinner early and follow practice with a nutritious snack.
Growing athletes get hungry, which is a reflection of their growth and the energy expenditure associated with exercise. If your athlete gets too hungry, he or she may overeat, and perhaps even binge (eat a large amount of food in a short period of time).
Overeating can cause unwanted weight gain. If overeating occurs at night, it may interfere with the morning appetite, disturbing a healthy rhythm of eating during the day.
4. Making Unhealthy Food Choices
Candy, sweet muffins, chocolate-coated granola bars, chips, and cookies are “sometimes” foods for child athletes and shouldn’t be eaten routinely. Once in a while is acceptable, but relying on unhealthy foods to sustain a training program or as preparation for a competition is silly.
While these foods can fit in the young athlete’s diet, their role should be minimal. Eating the right foods, and downsizing the wrong foods, is an area where many young athletes can improve.
Resource: The 90:10 Rule
5. Forgetting Fluids
A headache, feeling tired, and a sense of hunger are all potential signs of dehydration. Dehydration stems from getting behind in fluid consumption.
Ideally, athletes should drink fluids all day, come to practice with water (or a sports drink if training in hot, humid climates or for long periods of time), drink throughout training, and replenish with more fluids during their recovery, and throughout the rest of the day.
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Get the big picture and read The Young Athlete: Ultimate Guide to Nutrition.