Whether it's training for a soccer game or playing a backyard game of catch, children's athletic performance, development, and growth depend largely on eating the right foods. Unfortunately, most children (and adults) forget just how important nutrition is to good health and athletic performance. Many children, especially in the years before puberty, have poor eating habits (skipping breakfast, eating the same foods day after day). As a result, their diets are missing nutrients and their growth and athletic performance may be impaired.
It is important to recognize that children are not miniature adults; they have special nutritional needs. It is especially important to meet their nutritional needs as they enter puberty, when they experience rapid growth as they undergo hormonal changes marking the beginning of adolescence.
The most appropriate diet for the youth athlete is one that:
- Is high in nutrient-dense complex carbohydrates
- Contains moderate amounts of protein, salt, sugars, and sodium
- Is low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol; and
- Provides sufficient calories
Such a diet can be achieved by planning intake to include a variety of foods from each of the five major food groups in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Guide Pyramid. Especially for children, the pyramid serves as a visual guide for choosing foods and planning healthful meals.
As parent, you should promote the three basic principles that are key to a high-performance diet:
- Variety. Because no single food or supplement contains all the nutrients your child needs for optimum health, growth and performance, eating foods from each of the five food groups daily, as well as different foods from within each group, is essential.
- Balance. Calorie intake and energy expenditure should be balanced to maintain a healthy weight and body composition. Balance ordinarily results from practicing moderation and variety, and requires that your child consume appropriate amounts of essential nutrients.