Moms know it’s a fulltime job feeding a growing child, be it breast or bottle, baby food or Big Macs.
From the moment her baby is born, Mom is a major player deciding when, how much and how nutritious the food her child eats. And that responsibility is even greater when the tyke is an athlete with an eye on competing in the Olympics or the National Football League.
“Food can make a great athlete good, and a good athlete great …,” says Noaa Bujanover, an outpatient dietitian at All Children’s Hospital. “Nutrition plays a pivotal role in performance.”
There’s little research on youth athlete nutrition, but in general, active kids need 2,000 to 5,000 more calories a day than their sedentary peers, depending on the sport, age and gender, says KidsHealth.org, the website run by the Nemours Center for Children’s Health Media.
That’s because growing bodies aren’t as efficient using muscles, sweating or burning calories. Children 10 and younger and adolescents grow differently, but anyone exercising for an hour or more at a time needs to boost lean proteins, fluids and carbohydrate intake, Bujanover says.
That doesn’t mean all kids need to adopt Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps’ infamous 12,000-calorie-a-day diet, which included a five-egg omelet, three chocolate-chip pancakes, three fried eggs sandwiches and grits — for breakfast.
Instead, Moms can use the following as a general guide: Shoot for 55 percent carbohydrates, such as whole-grain pastas, cereals and fruits; 15 percent protein, such as lean meat and chicken, dairy or beans; and 30 percent unsaturated fats from nuts, vegetable and fish oils.
But don’t fall into the trap that piling on the proteins or carbs will bulk up kids faster, says Anita Bean, author of “Sports Nutrition for Young Athletes” ($24.95, Firefly Books).
In general, a 132-pound youth athlete should consume 72 to 84 grams of protein a day; and 360 to 420 grams of carbs if training for one to two hours daily. Excessive “carb loading” before an event can result in energy levels peaking and crashing sooner, and too much protein won’t boost a teen’s power or speed, Bean says.
“Protein over and above a young athlete’s requirements will be used as fuel or excreted, not converted into muscle,” she says.
The best food choices are simple, non-processed and appealing to the pickiest eaters, Bujanover says. And don’t be too uptight, as every parent knows restrictions can backfire.
“They’re children. I don’t expect them to not have sugar or candy,” Bujanover says. “It just needs to be in moderation.”
That’s a rule Tampa Preparatory School swimmer Emma Siewert, 18, started applying more than three years ago, when a coach suggested she incorporate a better diet into her high school and club swimming workout routine.
An admitted ice cream and cookie junkie, Siewert tweaked her food choices and the times at which she ate. Now when her friends take a lunch break at a fast food restaurant, she tags along with her Vera Bradley lunchbox, packed with meals like black beans and yellow rice, a Clif Bar and banana.
“I was less tired at practice and I wasn’t crashing,” she says of the changes that helped her earn a spot on the University of Pennsylvania swim team this fall.
Roughly 25 percent of Tampa Prep’s student athletes actively adhere to diets designed to maximize performance, says Andrew Sufficool, a teacher and athletic trainer at the private secondary school. More often, the teens are like their peers, scarfing down pizza and fast food.
“Everyone hears about it,” he says. “You think they would do the right things.”
The teenage tendency to skip meals, choose junk food or worry about personal appearance can be real problems for young athletes, Bujanover says. Also, teens competing in sports such as wrestling, swimming and gymnastics are more likely to be self-conscious about their bodies, she says.
Siewert says she finds a lot of support from fellow swimmers, many of whom have grown up practicing four and five days a week. As a group, they eat well leading up to competition, and then celebrate afterward with a trip for ice cream at Cold Stone Creamery.
It’s not impossible for young athletes to balance good nutrition and splurges, she says, even though the bad stuff is always beckoning.
“It’s definitely tempting,” she says and smiles. “I’m not going to lie.”