Consuming protein doesn’t equate to big, bulky muscles. Instead, muscle growth is a gradual process that depends upon the adequate eating of protein and calories, hormones such as testosterone, and a daily dose of exercise.
All children need a balanced, healthy diet and plenty of physical activity in order to thrive. But should that balance change for kids who play on a sports team and should they consume more protein? Young athletes need to eat the proper mix of foods in order to support their higher activity level, but eating for sports should really be an extension of an already healthy lifestyle.
Here, we break down the nutritional needs of young athletes, the benefits of a high-protein diet, and some powerhouse foods for your sport star’s diet.
Nutrition Needs for Young Athletes
Children who consume healthy, well-balanced meals, snacks, and drinks will get the proper amount of nutrients needed to perform well in sports. Kids and teens who are involved in all-day competitions or strenuous endurance sports, such as swimming or cross-country running, may need to eat more food to keep up with increased levels of energy.
Many athletes will naturally consume the proper amount of food their growing bodies need. But if you’re worried that your child is getting too much or too little food, check with their doctor.
Besides getting the right amount of calories, it takes a variety of nutrients to keep young athletes performing at their best, including:
- Vitamins and Minerals – Calcium and iron are two critical minerals for athletes as they keep bones strong and help carry oxygen throughout the body.
- Carbohydrates – These provide energy for the body. When selecting carbs, look for whole-grain foods like whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, and tons of fruits and veggies.
- Protein – Protein is essential for young athletes as it builds and repairs muscle.
How Much Protein is Needed?
Young athletes need slightly more protein than children who don’t play sports. Protein needs are based on age, gender, body weight, and developmental stage.
Athletic teens need about 0.45 to 0.6 grams of protein for every pound of body weight. This differs from non-athletes, who need about 0.3 to 0.4 grams per pound.
However, many young athletes are able to meet their daily protein requirements and then some. Some studies have shown that kid and teen athletes eat two to three times the recommended dietary allowance for protein. Contrary to popular belief, adding even more protein on top of that doesn’t build additional muscle.
Studies have indicated that it isn’t the total protein intake for the day that counts for young athletes. The body can best produce and maintain muscle mass when the total protein count for the day is divided evenly among three meals and snacks.
The Best Protein Sources
A lot of foods contain protein, but high-quality protein is found in poultry, fish, eggs, beef, dairy products, and soy. These foods are powerhouse additions to a young athlete’s diet. If you begin to work some of these foods into your child’s eating plan, you can rest assured you are incorporating more nutrition for training and performance.
Protein-packed foods include:
- Nuts – Use them as toppings in cereal or yogurt, or just have your kid grab a handful on the way to practice.
- Beans– Magical indeed! They are rich in protein, as well as iron and magnesium.
- Yogurt – Opt for Greek varieties if you’re looking to stock up on protein from whole foods.
- Lean Meats – Lean meats like skinless chicken and lean beef make an awesome source of protein.
- Plants – Legumes are protein-rich plants and perfect for teens who are vegetarians.
Benefits of Protein for Young Athletes
There are tons of benefits that accompany a high-protein diet for young athletes. These include:
- Muscle Building – Protein is the building block of life and helps to build, maintain, and replace muscle tissue in the body. It also helps to maintain the immune system.
- Helps Cells to Grow – Protein is critical for the growth of cells in a teen’s body. It replenishes blood, heals injuries, and aids in the growth of hair and nails.
- Promotes a Healthy Metabolism – Protein in the form of enzymes and hormones keep the body’s metabolic process in tip-top shape.
- Boosts Immunity – Your teen’s immune system fights off illness and keeps the body healthy. Protein works as an antibody to assist in the functioning of the immune system.
- Protein Produces Hemoglobin – The body needs oxygen to function optimally. Protein aids in the production of hemoglobin, the component of blood that carries oxygen to all parts of the body.
Protein for Game Day
It’s vital for kids to eat well on game days. Young athletes should eat healthy meal options, rich in protein, to enhance their performance.
Here are some general game day guidelines:
- A meal served three hours or more before activity should have a moderate amount of protein.
- If children eat less than three hours before a game or practice, serve a lighter meal such as fruits, crackers, or bread.
- After the game, experts recommend eating protein within 30 minutes of intense activity and again two hours later to rebuild muscle tissue and replenish energy levels.
Be Wary of Protein Supplements
Some parents of young athletes wonder about using a protein supplement like a protein powder or high-protein drink. This is not necessary and might even be dangerous. Using protein supplements can lead to excessive protein intake in young kids and teens, taxing their kidneys and promoting dehydration.
Plus, the risk for contamination with hormones, steroids, and other unwanted ingredients is very real, as the regulations of dietary supplements are largely left to manufacturers.
Serving kids a healthy diet isn’t rocket science, but it can be a battle. Kids can be fussy eaters, but fortunately, many sources of protein are kid-friendly foods. So incorporate protein-packed meals into their daily menu to ensure they are performing at their peak.