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Published on October 22, 2019

teen girls eating oranges after soccer practice

Kids, Food and Sports

Every day in his practice, Samuel Schimelpfenig, MD, FAAP, Avera Medical Group pediatrician and sports medicine specialist, meets with kids and parents, and a topic of discussion that comes up regularly is kids, food and sports. He offers these answers to help any parent who has a young athlete in the family.

What are some key “starting points” when it comes to kids, diet and sports?

The main goal is to provide healthy nutrition and hydration when kids are participating in sports activities. When the weather is hot and humid, kids will need more frequent breaks to rest and hydrate. Ideally something to eat (fruit is a great choice) would be helpful as well. Avoidance of sugary drinks should be considered; if they have something to eat like fruit, water is fine. Sports drinks are an option as they will also contain some sugar and electrolytes, but the need for electrolyte replacement is less for shorter activities.

Kids generally lack the endurance that older children and adolescents have; sporting events should be kept to shorter lengths of time with breaks built in.

Is the idea that kids can get away with eating “anything” a myth?

Unfortunately childhood obesity is a major health concern. In general, most children have a high metabolism rate, but they still need regular physical activity and healthy foods. Excessive sugar consumption and decreased physical activity is the root cause of our obesity epidemic.

Sports drinks look like a “healthy alternative” to juice or soda since the commercials all show healthy athletes drinking them. But they do contain a fair amount of sugar as well, and so I would treat them as being similar to juice – something for a special occasion and not needed on a regular basis. They are most helpful in the setting of prolonged physical exercise when glucose and electrolyte depletion begins to occur. Most children however, are not exercising for that long for that to be a major issue.

While protein is often seen as a building-block for muscle, are protein-dense foods like shakes, etc., really worth the money or does a lot of that protein pass without use?

Children generally do not need a protein supplement; they should get all the protein they need from a healthy and well-balanced diet. Excess protein generally is not stored, or if so is stored as fat (usually not what an athlete wants). Too much protein also can be damaging to the kidneys.

Building muscle mass requires several things, including a type of weight-lifting that we don’t recommend (power-lifting) in the pediatric population due to their open growth plates and the potential for injury. Building muscle mass is also aided by certain hormones, most of which are not secreted in high enough amounts until the onset of puberty. Having the full daily intake of protein is an important part of building muscle mass, but because the other two main pieces of the picture are not there yet protein supplementation really serves no purpose in the pediatric athlete.

Chocolate milk is sometimes seen as a good “recovery” drink – are there other foods/drinks that might not seem “great” but do help kids perform, recover or stay hydrated?

Chocolate milk does make a good recovery drink, as it has a nice balance of protein, fat and carbohydrates that the body can use as it recovers from the effects of exercise. In reality, any combination of low-calorie fluids (water) and healthy food following exercise will be more beneficial than sugary snacks for the young athlete.

What are a few common mistakes parents might make when it comes to kids, food and sports?

The most common mistake I see with young athletes is the choices made in regard to the foods given. I’ve often seen cookies, potato chips, and other unhealthy foods handed out to the team after a game. A better choice, but admittedly less exciting, would be fresh fruits like oranges and bananas. Sugary drinks are often seen at these events as well; water is just fine for kids.

As long as they have something to eat as well as drink, electrolyte replacement is less of a concern, and as mentioned typically only becomes a concern with prolonged activities (greater than an hour.)

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