Supporting a Young Athlete from Breakfast to Dinner
As the mother of two active athletes, I am frequently challenged to make sure my sons are properly fueled for those long days when team practices after-school keep them out of the house until the early evening. Success for a young athlete requires a well-balanced diet from breakfast, to lunch, through afternoon snacks (and practice) and dinner. Whatâ€™s a mother (parent) to do?
Believe it or not, an energy-packed breakfast can go a long way. Every meal should be based around a protein, complex carbohydrates and â€œhealthy fat,â€ but breakfast sets the stage for the entire day. If your goal is to send off children equipped for success, make sure to use breakfast as an energy source.
The typical American breakfast may consist of a sugary cereal, or a token bagel or muffin coupled with a synthetic fat (i.e. margarine or vegetable oil spreads). Either way, itâ€™s packed with refined, or simple, carbohydrates. This is not the breakfast of championsâ€” itâ€™s the breakfast for disaster. Refined carbohydrates found in sugary cereals or non-whole grain bread products quickly break down to form glucose. Glucose enters the blood stream causing blood sugar levels to rise quickly and drop just as quick. Hence, a breakfast of this nature will cause a child to hit the wall by mid-morning. Not a great strategy for success in second period math, let alone any sporting event after school.
A healthy breakfast should include a protein, quality fat, and complex carbohydrates. The typical American breakfast consists of a token bagel or muffin, often with a synthetic fat (i.e. margarine or vegetable oil spreads). This is the breakfast for disaster. Refined carbohydrates quickly break down to form glucose. Glucose enters the blood stream causing blood sugar levels to rise quickly and then drop just as quick. Hence, a breakfast of this nature will cause a child to hit the wall by mid-morning. Not a great strategy for success in math class or any sporting event for that matter.
For a true breakfast of champions, consider eggs, oatmeal with real cream and old-fashioned butter topped with fresh berries. Add a glass of whole, preferably raw milk (I prefer from grass-fed cows), and you will provide a child with enough substance to last through the morning. Avoiding the blood sugar roller coaster is critical, as it can lead to undue stress on the adrenal glands, which are located in the endocrine system and become fully engaged when one is under physical stress, as experienced in athletic workouts. Providing a child with a balanced breakfast and lunch will ensure that they go into their after-school practices and workouts with adrenals properly nourished. Skipping breakfast or eating a sugar-based meal is like filling up a high performance vehicle with watered down 87-octane gasoline and refusing to change the oil. Itâ€™s just a matter of time before the engine wears down. Bottom line: breakfast matters if you want to succeed on the field.
But it doesnâ€™t stop there, being able to pack a complete lunch is just as important. Sandwiches are a favorite for my sons. Start with 100 percent whole-grain bread which keeps intact the vital complex carbohydrates. Add several slices of turkey, chicken, or roast beef along with whole milk cheese for protein, topped off with a few slices of avocado which add healthy fats, and some lettuce or sprouts. In addition to a sandwich, a variety of fruits and raw vegetables are always on the lunch menu in our home. And cheese sticks or a small whole-milk yogurt can provide additional nutrition and fuel. Avoid bottled juices and stick to water throughout the day. Bottled juices generally provide no nutritional value, but plenty of simple carbohydrates in the form of sugar. The pasteurization process destroys the vitamins once naturally present in the fruits and generally, only synthetic vitamins are added back in. I often add additional trace minerals to my childrenâ€™s water bottles to increase their mineral stores. Minerals are the catalyst for the bodyâ€™s use of vitamins and other nutrients.
Before and after practice, itâ€™s important for kids to have a snack that is easy to digest. If they donâ€™t get a chance to come home before their afternoon sports schedule kicks in or they canâ€™t get a well-balanced dinner immediately after a practice or game, a quick snack can be invaluable. For my kids I like to pack a protein bar or protein shake, but other options include:
â€”Almond or cashew butter and honey on whole grain bread
â€”Fresh and dried fruit, nuts
â€”Fresh or frozen fruit smoothies with flaxseed oil
â€”Beef, turkey, or salmon jerky
â€”Whole milk yogurt, whole milk, chocolate milk, raw cheeses
When a childâ€™s physical activities are done for the day, that doesnâ€™t mean theyâ€™re done fueling. Children should come home to a well-balanced dinner, ready and waiting. They will be ravenously hungry. As with breakfast and lunch, the meal they come home to should include protein, quality fat and complex carbohydrates. For protein, include beef, lamb, turkey, chicken or wild fish. Fats can be added to the complex carbohydrates (vegetables and grains). Wonderful and delicious fats include butter, olive oil, coconut oil, sour cream, avocados, nuts and seeds. Steamed or sautÃ©ed vegetables, as well as a beautiful raw vegetable salad should grace your dinner table every night.
The common threads of a well-balanced dietâ€”protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fatsâ€”each play a specific roll in the nutrition of children. Proteins build and restore muscle tissue, complex carbohydrates offer a quick source of energy and provide necessary minerals and vitamins and fats supply the body with long-lasting energy as well as brainpower. A well-balanced diet from breakfast to dinner will give a young athlete the nutritional tools needed for strong bones, muscles, and ligaments, as well as the mental focus to succeed in the classroom.
Kim Schuette, CN is a licensed certified nutritionist in private practice in Solana Beach, California.