With spring here, and warmer weather starting to peak, it’s time to start thinking about spring and summer sports for our kids. Many of our children will be involved in sports, especially competing in day or week-long tournaments, so looking for healthy food alternatives are key.
Parents need to be looking out for snacks that provide good vitamins and minerals and adequate calories to maintain energy levels during exercise. Snacks provided directly before a game or during a game should be low in fat and fiber so as not to upset the child’s stomach. Fat and fiber are slow to digest and therefore stay in the stomach longer, which can cause an upset stomach during activity. Fruits, vegetables, granola bars, yogurt, and sports gels are all very good options for healthy snacks that would be beneficial to kids during a sporting event.
All of these products contain simple carbohydrates that are easily absorbed by the body to provide quick calories and sugar to promote continued energy during the game. Snacks can also include drinks like water or a sports drink. Sports drinks were specifically designed for athletes to provide water, electrolytes, and easily absorbed sugars to promote good energy and hydration for athlete’s before, during, and after sporting events.
With day long tournaments or back-to-back days of sporting events, nutritional needs change slightly. The same tips for foods, such as eating directly before and during a sporting event, hold true during tournaments as well, with low fat and low fiber, simple carbohydrate snacks such as fruit, vegetables, granola bars, bagels, yogurt, and more. It is very important that the child is well hydrated going into a sporting event, especially when that child will have multiple games that day. Children are more prone to heat related injuries and do not sweat as well as adults. Therefore, it is crucial that the child is well hydrated with either water or sports drinks prior to the start of an event.
Going in to a tournament weekend, it is good to focus on healthy meals that include good protein, complex carbohydrates and fiber, and good vitamins and minerals. Some fats are OK, but avoid very high fatty foods. Carbohydrates are very important, but the concept of “carbohydrate loading” is a bit outdated.
Research has shown that carbohydrate loading is beneficial mostly for endurance athletes or those athletes who will be active for more than 90 minutes or more at a time. Therefore, focusing on carbohydrates would be most beneficial for children participating in sports like soccer, hockey, cross country, and distance track events. Sports like baseball or softball, swimming, and football are stop and go and have frequent breaks, so carbohydrate loading would be less beneficial and may even be detrimental if a child consumes very heavy carbohydrate dishes the night before an event, such as a heavy pasta dish like pasta with Alfredo or other heavy sauce or a large amount of bread with butter or garlic spread on top. In general, focus on a well-balanced meal with a lean protein source, which can include poultry, fish, legumes, complex carbohydrates, such as whole grain pasta, brown rice, and a vegetable of choice.
The morning of an event, the athlete should eat enough to stay satisfied and prevent hunger throughout the sporting event, but not overeat and cause an upset stomach. Avoid fiber and fat at the morning meal. Focus on good hydration as well. A good example of a decent breakfast before an event would be cereal with skim milk, a piece of fruit, and a yogurt. In between event snacks depend on how much time the child has. If there is only an hour or two between events, focus on the same type of snacks that you would provide right before or during an event, such as fruits, yogurt, or a bagel. If there are a few hours in between events, then a decent snack or meal should be provided. This can include a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or a turkey sandwich with vegetables and small amount of cheese, a dinner size salad or soup, or smaller size of a pasta dish. Again, avoid high fat and high fiber foods, but a small amount of fat and fiber is beneficial if there is plenty of time to digest between events.
There are many examples of healthy snacks that parents can provide without having to spend extra time or amounts of money. Ready-to-eat snacks are available that are healthy for kids to eat before, during, or after a sporting event. These include granola bars, individual yogurts, string cheese, bagels, fruit, carrot sticks, individual bags of pretzels, and trail mix. Minimal preparation items include vegetables and fruits cut into bite size portions and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and other small sandwiches. You can find varieties of these food items on sale at different times of the year. Try a variety of different snack items and find the ones that your child likes the best.
In addition, parents need to be wary of items that say “low fat” or include terms like fruit or vegetable on the packaging. Low fat items replace the fat with sugars so low fat items are not inherently healthier. Also, items like veggie chips or fruit snacks are not necessarily healthy just because they say the words “fruit” or “vegetable”. Fruit snacks are basically candy and have the fake fruit flavors. Vegetable chips or straws might contain a small amount of vegetables, but can still have fat and usually contain a lot of various chemicals and preservatives. Common offenders at sporting events in concession stands are soft pretzels, pasta salad, muffins, and fruit snacks. Soft pretzels usually also come with a side of nacho cheese that is high in fat and low in nutrients. Muffins are perceived as healthy, but often contain a high amount of calories and fat and a low amount of good nutrients. Pasta salad usually has chunks of fatty meats such as pepperoni and cheese included and is often coated with high fat salad dressing. And again, fruit snacks are often very high in sugar and contain no actual fruit inside. Look for snacks that have calories coming from protein and good carbohydrates and not from fat and sugar.
Let’s have a great and healthy sports season this year!