Seattle's Child

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Running track at Seattle Academy

Feeding Your Young Athlete

Go for a mix of protein and carbs; small bites are good

It’s fun and exciting (and often very carpool intensive) to have your child participating in a competitive sport. But given the level of competition these days and the rigorous training that starts at an early age, we want to do all we can to feed our young athletes well so we asked Cynthia Lair, local author of Feeding the Young Athlete: Sports Nutrition Made Easy for Players, Parents and Coaches (Readers to Eaters, 2017), to write about a few of the many important topics covered in her informative book.

Are Energy Bars a Good Choice?

The good news is there are some fantastic bars out there made with whole foods ingredients. However, caution must be practiced. Ya gotta read the ingredient labels so you know what you are eating. And you have to know why you’re eating the bar. Liz Kirk Ph.D., R.D., a faculty member in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Science at Bastyr University offers the following advice regarding energy bars:

Consider your purpose

If you’re an athlete and you’re training for something, then you have a different profile in mind than someone who just wants a snack. Choose your best bar accordingly.

To fuel recovery

Active people in need of quick energy to support their endeavors should seek bars with a high carbohydrate content (20 grams or more). The source of the carbs should be examined. Each bar will list sugar and fiber grams beneath carbohydrate content. Most bars have anywhere from 35 grams to 50 grams of carbohydrates. Select bars with under 18 grams of sugar – meaning that sugar or a form of sugar (words that end in the letters –ose) is not the first ingredient. Also make sure the bar has fewer than 15 grams of protein for quicker digestion.

Dr. Kirk confirms that the best formula for recovery is a bar with a 4 to 1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. You may need to bring your calculator to the store to make sure the bar you’re choosing will replace carbohydrates and glycogen stores efficiently.

For non-athletic fueling or recovering, it’s okay to choose bars with a more even ratio of protein to carbs. Protein and fat both slow digestion and prolong fullness. And Dr. Kirk reminds us to consider the fiber content. Fiber slows digestion for longer, more sustained release of energy.

Refuel Quickly to Come Back Stronger

A lot of muscle fuel is expended during a physical match of any sort and it must be replenished. Understanding how to rebuild the body’s fuel is crucial to the next performance. Though there is a bit a science involved, the concept is easy to understand and even easier to implement!

What is a glycogen window?

Research has shown that our muscles are able to replenish their glycogen needs more quickly when we eat or drink carbohydrate-containing foods within the first 30 minutes after a game or practice. During this time – called a glycogen window – muscles will convert carbohydrates into glycogen up to three times faster than if the player waits until two hours after the game to eat. There are two explanations for this phenomenon:

1. Increased blood flow to the muscle cells brings more nutrients to make glycogen.

2. The muscle cells are more sensitive to the substances that transform nutrients into glycogen immediately after play.

The bottom line is to eat healthy carbohydrate-containing snacks and beverages as soon as you can after the game or practice has finished. This snack or meal is especially important if players have another game, scrimmage, or practice within 12 to 24 hours. Ideally, if the players have a second game the same day, they will have a small nutritious snack immediately following the game, followed by a more substantial meal.

What post-game/practice snack works?

This brings up another key point in recovery research: the importance of including a small amount of protein in the post-game snack or meal. The best ratio is one part protein per four parts carbohydrate (this 1:4 ratio has been shown effective for adults, but research is lacking for children). The protein stimulates insulin, which helps glucose transform into muscle glycogen.

Picture appetizers. Amuse-bouche. Small bites. Post-game snack size is important. Most young people feel overwhelmed (even nauseous) looking at a huge plate of food right after playing hard.

In typical Seattle style, one of the teams my daughter played on preferred vegetable sushi rolls post-game. This Japanese treat is pricey (or labor-intensive) but perfect in size and composition: rice, vegetables, and the nori wrapping is renowned for minerals and protein value.

Remember to CHEW! Don’t wolf down food. Your stomach will have to do the work if your teeth don’t.

11 quick refueling snacks

  1. Whole grain crackers with cheese and grapes
  2. Raisin bread and a banana
  3. Turkey and veggie chapatti roll-ups cut into 2″ pieces
  4. Whole grain bagel half with cream cheese
  5. PJ & B sandwiches cut into fourths
  6. Tortilla chips with salsa and bean dip
  7. Fresh vegetables and dip
  8. Rice cakes with almond butter and apples
  9. Homemade oatmeal cookies and oranges
  10. Pita bread and hummus
  11. Peanut Butter Cranberry Zoom Zoom Bars

Three big reasons to eat a post-game/practice snack

  • Muscles can uptake fuel 3X faster than usual.
  • Recovery is faster.
  • You will be able to come back stronger the next game and sustain a high performance level throughout the season.

Don’t Athletes Need Extra Protein to Build Muscle?

Not really, which is a surprise to most young athletes. There is some research that shows a little advantage for professional or elite adult athletes to include more protein on strength training days. There is no apparent advantage for younger athletes to add more protein.

Active people who regularly workout are often told by the trainers at their gym to “eat more protein.” Although the trainers may have good intentions, they are likely pointing people toward adding protein powders to their smoothies and other drinks. I would challenge folks to look at the ingredients in the protein powder and then google each one to find out how it is made. There are some surprises. For example soy protein isolate is not a substance that resembles fresh food. It is powder made from isolating compounds that were once upon a time a food. Powder is not food.

Recipes for refueling your young athlete post game 


About the Author

Cynthia Lair