When to feed your athlete carbs, protein and fats

While you might think protein is the most important nutrient for young athletes, protein is a building block, not a performance fuel. The body burns fat and glycogen (how the body stores carbs) when you play sports.  

You burn more fat during aerobic sports (e.g., cross country) and more glycogen (carbs) for most other sports. Protein is very important for athletes to maintain strong bogies and is very helpful for repairing muscles after a workout or competition.

However, kids need to pre-fuel primarily with carbohydrates to meet most of their energy demands for sports, with fats and protein providing additional nutrient sources. Knowing when to feed your child carbohydrates, proteins and fats will help you create the most beneficial pre- and post-activity meals and snacks.

Pre-game meals and snacks

The closer (in time) your child gets to most sports, the more complex carbohydrates she should eat. Limit how much refined (white) flour products you give kids and stick to whole grain breads and pastas. Include lean protein to make up about one-third of your calories. While some sports rely on more fat for fuel, the body has enough fat stores that you don’t need to load up on extra fat during a pre-game meal.

Holistic sports nutritionist, Julie Burns, MS, RD, CCN, owner or SportFuel in Chicago, says that not all children will benefit from a carb-heavy pre-game meals, particularly those who eats lots of sugar during the week. Eating low-sugar, slower burning carbs can help regulate blood sugar levels during games and matches and help kids tap into fat sources at the best times. See our list of good carbs, protein and fat choices at the end of this article.

During competition

If a game or match isn’t intense and kids aren’t sweating, they probably don’t need nutrients and it’s a good idea to lay off the sports drinks. If kids will be exercising hard and sweating for an hour or more, give them some nutrition during competition to help restore lost energy sources and electrolytes. Young athletes can nurse a high-carb sports drink, energy bar or healthy natural snacks in small portions throughout a game or match, rather than eating or drinking it all at once. See our article, “Does Your Child Really Need a Sports Drink?" for more information on this topic.

Bananas are a familiar in-game food kids like and provide carbs and potassium. Nonfat (baked, not fried) salted snacks, such as salted pretzels, can help kids replace lost sodium, suggests sports dietitian Page Love, MS, RD, CSSD, owner of Nutrifit Sport Therapy, Atlanta. Coconut water is a growing in-game choice among competitive athletes. Keep kids away from soda before and during sports because of the high sugar content and caffeine.

Post-activity meals and snacks

Try to get at least a quick recovery meal into your child within 30 minutes of finishing a hard game or workout, including plenty of complex carbs with some protein. If you’ll be in the car for a while before you can eat, bring bagels, fruit, string cheese, yogurt cups, chocolate milk and nuts. Start the process of rehydrating immediately if your child has sweated profusely and lost lots of water.

After intense physical activity, lean protein helps rebuild and repair muscles. Believe it or not, chocolate milk is a good post-activity replenishment drink. You can choose low-fat chocolate milk and still get a good balance of carbohydrates and protein. According to an article in the Guardian, “Chocolate milk contains a three-to-one ratio of carbohydrate grams to protein grams, which appears to enhance glycogen replenishment, as well as far more potassium, calcium and vitamin D than most sports drinks.” Burns warns that non-organic dairy products are highly processed and can cause inflammation in kids’ bodies, so watch their reaction to these foods.

Stick with whole foods

Burns recommends that children eat more whole (natural) and organic foods as part of their regular diet, as well as before, during and after sports. She recommends including more healthy fats than many young diets currently include, and staying away from processed, high-sugar foods. A typical child’s diet is heavy in sugary foods, causing different children to develop different reactions to foods. This causes kids who eat lots of sugar during the week to quickly burn through their glycogen stores during sports.

Don’t forget to hydrate

In addition to the right foods, adequate water is essential to peak sports performance. Have your child drink water until his urine is pale yellow (lemonade color) to make sure he’s properly hydrated, recommends Love. Make sure your kids are well hydrated before activity and tell them that during games and matches, they should start drinking before they get thirsty. They can start with water, but if they are sweating profusely they are burning calories and losing electrolytes.

Good pre- and post-game choices for young athletes*

*Children should eat a wide variety of foods, including non-starchy vegetables and more fruit during the rest of the week to maintain complete health.

Carbohydrates

  • Sweet potatoes (instead of white potatoes)
  • Whole-grain breads and pastas
  • Steel-cut oatmeal
  • Quinoa
  • Winter squash (acorn, butternut, pumpkin)
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Broccoli
  • Beets
  • Cucumber
  • Onions
  • Berries
  • Melons
  • Cherries
  • Apples
  • Plums
  • Pears

Fats

  • Olive oil
  • Avocado (guacamole)
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Seeds
  • Dairy
  • Grass-fed butter and ghee
  • Coconut or palm oil

Proteins

  • Coldwater fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines)
  • Chicken and turkey breast meat
  • Lean and/or grass-fed beef and bison
  • Nuts
  • Rice and beans

Additional Resources

Fueling for a Match: Nutrifit Sport Therapy

SportFuel Blog

Steve Milano

Steve Milano has been writing and lecturing on youth sports for more than 25 years. He ... View Full Bio

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