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Feeding Sporty Kids

Feeding sporty kids

I don’t know about you, but my schedule is currently dominated by kids sports. My 11-year-old daughter has a serious passion for swimming that has her dragging me out of bed at 4.30am – yes it is early, but she’s committed, so I can’t help but oblige! So I thought I’d share the importance of refuelling and rehydrating active kids who have a busy sports schedule like my two. I’ve also had lots of requests about feeding sporty kids pre and post training so here it goes.

The biology of feeding sporty kids
First a little basic anatomy. Muscle uses glycogen (stored carbohydrate) for energy. So refilling muscle glycogen stores before and after exercise with easily digestible unrefined, complex carbohydrates is really important for growing bodies to be able to recover and rehydrate. A complete protein is also important for rebuilding and repairing muscle tissue. Glycogen attracts water and recovering muscle is three times as hungry for water as it is for glucose, so adequate hydration is really critical too.

When choosing what kids should eat before and after exercise, a little protein and a good amount of unrefined, complex carbohydrate-rich foods with a high water content will accelerate the refuelling/rehydrating process. Carbohydrates are best derived from plant sources; including fruits, vegetables, starchy root vegetables and legumes. They are an essential addition to any active kids diet because not only do they provide energy for endurance and strength, but water, vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants.  The presence of these non-caloric nutrients also affects the speed at which they are digested and absorbed, resulting in a slower release of glucose into the bloodstream (which is why they are generally recommended as providing a sustained form of energy). Refined carbohydrate, processed foods and high sugar sports and energy drinks do not have the same benefits and will NOT benefit your child’s body the way plant-based carbohydrate will.

Great snacks for sporty kids

1. Fruit smoothies made with fresh fruit (we love banana and berries), coconut water (great for extra hydration), natural, unsweetened yoghurt, nuts or seeds and I often throw in a vegetable or two (baby spinach, kale, avocado, cauliflower, zucchini and beetroot work well in smoothies)

2. Homemade dips (hummus and pesto are my kids favourites) with veggie sticks

3. Antipasto plates – ours usually have veggie sticks, fresh fruit and some type of protein like biltong (air-dried beef), nuts and seeds or a boiled egg

4. Chia Puddings and Yoghurt parfaits also go down well with my kids.

5. I also make my own sports protein bars 

6. A vegetable-based soup is another popular pre-training snack for my kids (usually before afternoon training). When I make soup I always make extra to freeze in recycled jars for quick, easy snacks. I have loads of healthy soup recipes above.

It’s so important that kids love their sport and that they feel energised and strong during and after training and competitions.  The food they eat very much impacts on both their performance and enjoyment so I believe it’s worth going the extra mile to make sure it is the very best thing for their growing bodies.

In a nut-shell:

Fruits and vegetables are particularly good sources of both simple and complex carbohydrates, and provide ample glucose to fuel sporty kids bodies because they:

-have a high water content, to aid in building glycogen (muscle energy) stores

-provide bioavailable antioxidants, to help clear free radicals formed during aerobic exercise

-as well as providing essential vitamins and minerals, to aid in building protein and providing energy

Refined carbohydrate, sugary foods, sports drinks, lollies and snow cones DO NOT improve your child’s energy, sports performance or long-term health and wellbeing (in fact quite the opposite).

I hope you find this post useful and I’m happy to take your questions in the comments below this post (so others can benefit too).

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Feeding sporty kids

  • Rosanne O’Brien

    Hey G why are we often told pasta is a great carb to have before sport. Whats your opinion on this? I’m assuming pasta is part of the refined carb group!!

    • There’s no doubt pasta will fuel muscle glycogen stores, but for most people it is not an easily digestible food, providing nothing more than simple carbohydrate (so few vitamins, minerals and no antioxidants to protect the cells from oxidative damage incurred during activity). Yes it is as highly refined as it gets. G x

  • Cathy

    How long before the activity should they have the food? I’ve got one daughter who will soon be going from a swimming lesson to a gymnastics lesson with an hour and half break in between. I know she will struggle with her energy levels in the gymnastics lesson unless I can provide her with good food. My question is though: when do I give her the food? Straight after swimming so she has chance to digest it before gymnastics or wait until just before gymnastics? I was planning on fruit and bliss balls/muesli bar/nut bar in between and something like the veggie sticks and hummus afterwards. Sound right?

    • Cathy – yes it is important to re-fuel within 30 minutes of intense activity so I would feed her straight after swimming to give time to digest a little before gymnastics. Your plan sounds good to me G x

  • Jacqui

    Hi Georgia, great info, thanks so much. I feel as though I’ve been trying to find this sort of info for years with little success.
    I have 2 very sporty teens. My 14 yo daughter is a track cyclist and a rower and my 16yo son is a footballer who is in elite squads and plays 2-3 games a week. They are also both tall with fast metabolisms and big appetites. The problem I’ve always found with my son in particular is that he burns up the food so fast that, coupled with the stress of match days where he often can’t eat too close to the game, he gets low blood sugar which then negatively impacts his playing ( emotional, angry etc). Do you have any suggestions re this: what to eat before a game that is filling enough & long lasting enough to cope with the physical & mental pressures of playing. And also a good half time quick snack to top him up… He is not a fan of liquids pre-game ( makes him feel sick) nor protein ball type things with dates!
    I’m so glad I found your Instagram and hence your blog!
    Thanks again

    • Hi Jacqui. It is a bit of a juggle with balancing food intake around competition and everybody is different in their requirements. I generally aim for a decent (protein, fat + good quality carb) 2 hours prior to competition and then snacks and anything from then on are only foods that are quickly digested (generally fruit and vegetable based and that just ‘sit right’ for the individual). If pre-game stress/nerves including bone broth in his diet is a good idea (and great for tissue repair). Also home made (gelatin based) jelly/gummies are fantastic. I agree that dates and dried fruit are best avoided (my protein bars and raw treats do not contain them at all). Hope this helps G x

  • Megan Bullen

    Hi Georgia, thanks for the great info!
    My son is 15 and is also a swimmer, he trains 9-10 sessions a week (about 20-22 hours per week). He used to train at PBC like your daughter, but he has now been at Bond Uni for the past year.
    About a year ago we found that his immune system wasn’t coping as well as it had in the past and he was picking up lots of little colds and flus. We now have him on an Immune tonic which has improved things but not to the level I had hoped. Daily he also takes Protein powder in a shake or smoothie, Spirulina, a multi vitamin, magnesium, fish oil, and a daily probiotic.
    In your opinion, how many serves of fruit and or vegetables should an athlete training at this level have per day, and is there any particular foods/supplements that he should be including on a daily basis? One swimmers mother suggested Colostrum?
    We eat pretty healthy, most of our fruit and vegetables are organic, he does try and eat 2-3 eggs each day also. Being a teenager though, I can’t get him off the cows milk or milo (to my horror!), and he eats a lot of bread which I don’t like either. Any other suggestions on how I can keep this hungry athlete full and fueled right to support his immune system would be greatly appreciated.
    Thanks so much, I find all your posts and blogs very informative whilst also being real for today’s pressures with a busy growing family.

    • Hi Megan, you’re welcome. It is not unusual for lost of endurance based activity to suppress immune function so it is always a good idea to support his immune system. It’s tough for me to identify why his immune response has been compromised lately. But I can speculate a little.

      So many factors contribute to a poor immune function. Sleep (often deprived with swimmers). Sugar intake is a big one for teens (aka milo does him no favours) as it significantly dampens his immune response (some studies suggest that a small amount of sugar will weaken immune function by 50%). Also I would consider his gut function (immune function is a mirror of gut function). Not sure if you read my post on wheat this week, but perhaps consider wheat free bread if he is eating a lot of it.

      Keep him full with big pots of soup (my minestrone might appeal) – you can make a big pot and freeze it in portions for him to heat. Also leftover casseroles, risotto, if he eats bread make sure it has salad or portion in it. If he is consuming lots of cows milk, make sure it is unhomogenised and organic (so less processed and challenging to his gut).

      Glad you enjoy my posts, hope this helps. A good naturopath should be able to take a holistic look at him and more accurately diagnose and therefore offer a targeted treatment plan G x

      • Megan Bullen

        Thanks so much Georgia. Some really good points there that I’ll focus on tackling with him. It can be so hard with these head-strong teenagers who think they know best! Ha ha. I’ve considered booking him in for a Naturopath/Nutritionist consultation so will definitely look into it. Thanks again x

        • No worries, I’ve treated a lot of really resistant teens in my day and their parents were always astounded how compliant they were when it was coming from a third party (not them). I think a worthy investment G x

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