Advice on Feeding an Athletic Child

CC BY 2.0. yuseokoh

Whole foods should always be top priority.

Feeding kids can be a tricky business at the best of times, but what if that kid is also an athlete? Their body is performing physical feats in addition to growing, and good nutrition is a crucial component of that. The problem is, there tends to be a lack of solid nutritional research when it comes to kids.

Brian Timmons, research director of the Child Health and Exercise Medicine Program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, told Outside Online that this is partly because kids grow so fast (they outgrow their test periods) and partly because it's ethically questionable to use them as test subjects if their eating habits are poor.

But there are some things we do know, and these are useful tips for all children, regardless of their athletic ability.

1. Don't give them special kid foods. A child's healthy plate should look like an adult's would. Serve up a mix of carbohydrates, protein, and fat, and make sure there are lots of vegetables, too. Model good eating habits and they'll be more inclined to follow.

2. Kids burn a lot of energy, but they burn it differently from adults. Adults tend to burn sugars first, then fat and protein, but kids' bodies go for the fat right away. This is a good habit to establish, as Timmons believes that "eating fat as fuel during endurance workouts as a child could help the body burn fat more efficiently in the future." So pass the trail mix and peanut butter sandwiches instead of the fruit juice the next time your kid is out skiing all day.

3. Give whole foods, not substitutes. Protein powders, energy gels, and dietary supplements for muscle-building and weight loss do not belong in kids' diets, no matter how athletic they are. Studies have shown these products to increase risk of "severe medical events" in children. Let's be honest – whole foods do the exact same job, only better.

4. Don't overthink quantities. Parents need to relax about dehydration (unless it's extremely hot outside) and hypoglycaemia and let their kids' natural needs guide consumption. "Thirst is the best gauge for when kids should drink," Timmons says, and I'd suggest the same goes for food. Offer healthy snacks and meals regularly, and active kids will know when to eat and when to stop.

Read more of Timmons' suggestions in this article on Outside Online.