Sports Nutrition Basics

Additional Advice

  • Occasional sweets are okay. You don't have to eliminate foods that get most of their calories from fat or sugars (see top of pyramid), but your child should only consume such foods occasionally, in addition to, not in place, of other nutrient-dense foods from the food groups lower down on the pyramid.
  • Consult an expert if necessary. If you ever become concerned about whether your child's diet is adequate, seek nutritional counseling. A registered dietitian can help identify any nutritional problems that may be hindering your child's performance.

How Parents Can Help Their Children Eat Better

To improve your child's diet, you can:

  • Buy more healthy foods
  • Provide nutritious snacks and fluids for before and after practice and competitions, so your child does not have to rely on vending machines filled with sugary or high-fat snacks and soft drinks.
  • Model healthy eating. If you set a good example for your child by exercising and eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, your child is more likely to "eat to compete" and grow into a healthy adult.
  • Make your child's favorite foods more nutritionally dense or substitute similar foods that are, such as by:
    • Serving fortified cereals instead of sugary ones
    • Offering peanut butter cookies instead of chocolate cream cookies
    • Substituting fruit-flavored frozen yogurt for dessert instead of ice cream
  • Variety and balance in the family menu will underscore the importance of eating different foods to provide the range of nutrients needed for growth and development. Ideally, this is achieved by regularly scheduled meals at home plus nutritious snacks.

Providing nutritious meals around hectic practice schedules and away from home is a particular challenge. Workouts may disrupt your child's meal schedule, resulting in a greater reliance on convenient fast food or the child eating alone at home before or after the family eats. As a result, it is very important to help your child make nutritious choices wherever he eats, whether it is at a fast food, family-style or ethnic restaurant, a grocery or convenience store, or on an airplane, or while competing in a foreign country.

Parents should educate children about basic facts about the different food groups and how different foods help or hurt athletic performance. Attempts to teach children nutritional concepts and information should take into account their age and developmental level (for example, by explaining to a 7 year old that foods containing carbohydrates, like bread and pasta, provide energy for their muscles, and that dairy foods like milk help build strong bones).


Updated November 1, 2015


Dr. Nelson currently works with college athletes and is a nutrition health advisor for Sun-Maid. Previously, she was the team nutritionist for the San Francisco 49ers and provided nutrition consultation to the San Francisco Giants. Throughout her career, Dr. Nelson has advised both recreational and elite athletes. She is a nationally known speaker in sports nutrition and is the author/editor of several books and numerous scientific journal articles.


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